The Legalities of RFRA, Yelp Reviews, Fake Websites and More – Part 1 [e174]

April 8, 2015

Nasir and Matt talk about the Indiana’sReligious Freedom Restoration Act and how a pizza place was the first to adopt the new law.

Full Podcast Transcript

NASIR: All right. Welcome to our podcast where we cover business in the news and add our legal twist. My name is Nasir Pasha.

MATT: And I’m Matt Staub.

NASIR: And this story was built for us as if they put it together. Matt’s been messaging me all week, like, “We have to cover this!” because it has to do with pizza and Yelp, right? It’s a nice combination, but there’s other things too, right? GoFundMe.

MATT: Yeah, there’s a lot of things. I mean, even starting from the beginning. You know, I’m from Indiana.

NASIR: There you go.

MATT: Yeah, and we just talked about last week the people that are taking, like, the Taylor Swift and the Ted Cruz URLs.

NASIR: Oh, that’s true.

MATT: It’s kind of the same thing. Someone basically created a fake website for this company. If you’re listening to this, you obviously know how technology works and you’ve heard about this story that’s been going around.

NASIR: “You know how technology works”? Yeah.

MATT: Well, I figure anyone who listens to a podcast would definitely have heard this story over the last couple of weeks at some point.

NASIR: Well, I don’t know. I could picture, like, a Unabomber-type person in the middle of nowhere listening to our podcast and our podcast only. So, this is where they get the news, you know?

MATT: So, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which isn’t new in general but at least new to, I guess, this version is new to Indiana. You did a good job explaining the federal.

NASIR: Yeah. So, this is not a new law to the country. Like you said, it’s a new law to the state of Indiana. I think there’s actually 18 or 19 other states that have almost the exact same law and this was actually modelled after a federal law back in the 90s – you know, during the Bill Clinton presidency. And so, it is kind of strange from a legal perspective to see the reaction and I think even the governor felt the same way. He felt taken back of the reaction that he’s received because what is a pop news story right now going on about this law is that people are using this law or interpreting this law or this law was even passed to discriminate against homosexuals or based upon sexual orientation and the actual language itself has nothing to do with that. And so, then the question is, “What were the intentions behind this law?” Was it to discriminate?

MATT: Yeah. I mean, you’re exactly right in that and there’s nothing in there. It’s all about the exercise of religion so it’s reading the actual bill itself reminds me of the constitutional law class where you had to do all these tests on whether the burdens outweigh the benefits, things like that.

NASIR: Yeah.

MATT: That’s essentially how this is worded. If you’re really interested, you can read the actual bill itself but it’s just a test saying that the state or local government can’t substantially burden a person’s right to exercise a religion unless it’s blah blah blah. I don’t need to get into the whole thing but it’s nothing to do with sexuality at all.

NASIR: Yeah, it restates what the law is already regarding the application of religious freedoms. And so, what’s interesting, if I asked one of these, you know, people that are protesting against this law, if I asked them, “Okay, before this law was passed, could an Indiana business owner discriminate against a homosexual?” what do you think their answer would be?

MATT: No?

NASIR: Of course, it would be “no” but the answer is that they can and they can before the law and the can after. Now, I’m sure this is going to be a challenge but the reality is that there is no federal protection for sexual orientation but there is state protection on a state-by-state level – California is one of them amongst many others and I think the trend is such that it’ll start extending to that. Even in Indiana, there are local city ordinances that have passed these protections. And so, this interpretation by both spectrums, both the people that are very discriminatory against sexual orientation and the opposite, I think they both have a very unclear understanding of what this law actually does and what it was intended for. I mean, to speak to the intentions, you can look at what the governor says. They said it’s a reaction to this Affordable Care Act, this Hobby Lobby thing that we’ve covered in the past. Whether that’s true or not, you know, it’s hard for us to actually know. Whether it was intended to be an excuse for business owners to discriminate, I don’t think so because, like I said, they could do that in the first place before. So, it didn’t really affect that.

MATT: Yeah. To me, you’re right in that and that’s why, to me, it’s timing and it’s spin so I think the timing to this was not great and the spin on it too is probably even worse. So, this is something that could have easily flown under the radar because if you just, you know, someone who’s not listening to this podcast that has not heard about this at all, if you just presented him the actual text from the bill and you asked them, you know, “Tell me what this means to you,” I don’t think someone could derive this means people can discriminate against someone based on their sexuality.

NASIR: No, not at all.

MATT: You have to make a couple of leaps in order to get to that point. And so, timing is everything with this and the approach as well in how it was introduced was just not great. But, you know, unfortunately, that’s over and done with. It already happened and there’s a very negative look on this. So, what were we waiting for? Well, we were waiting for the first business who was going to get intertwined with this new act.

NASIR: And this local news channel, I mean, they definitely took the opportunity and this is, I think, what started it all. I think they heard of some pizza joint that was taking this new Indiana law and construing it as their license to discriminate. Let me just play the clip.
REPORTER: As the nation debates the recent Religious Freedom law enacted by Indiana, WBND-TV reports that a local pizza parlor is defending the now contentious bill at their restaurant.
INTERVIEWEE: If a gay couple was to come in, like, say they wanted us to provide them pizzas for a wedding, we would have to say no.
REPORTER: Crystal O’Connor and her family Memories Pizza and Ice Cream in Walkerton, Indiana. The owners, standing firm in their beliefs.
INTERVIEWEE: We’re not discriminating against anyone. It’s just that’s our belief and everybody has their right to believe anything.
REPORTER: As many opponents around the country consider the bill discriminatory towards gays and lesbians, the O’Connors say the law protects businesses just like theirs.
INTERVIEWEE: I don’t think it is targeting gays, personally. I don’t think it’s a discrimination. It’s supposed to help people that have a religious belief.

NASIR: So, that’s a little bit of it. So, we’re about to get into this story of how Memories Pizza had this huge backlash on Yelp, on the internet. Their sites have been hacked. They’ve had their trademark stolen and they’ve had other Google Places created right next to them pointing to other directions. All these different things happened to them in response to this particular news piece and this is the video that went viral and really brought this to the attention to the nation. What’s interesting about this is that, okay, it is a hypothetical. If you notice, there’s a background to this because what they don’t show is the reporting asking, “Okay. What if this happened? What if a gay couple came to you and wanted to cater their wedding or whatever?” and they answer, “Well, if that happens, then no, we’re not going to do that.” So, what’s interesting about that is, obviously, I think everyone’s making a joke – what pizza joint is going to do a catering for a wedding anyway? But, putting that aside for a moment – except you, Matt, you had your wedding catered by a pizza place, right?

MATT: Yeah, it was actually at a pizza place.

NASIR: That’s right. So, I should preface that aspect of things because even if they’re discriminating, giving them an opportunity to do so I think is difficult because how are they able to determine their customer’s sexual orientation when they order a pizza? Maybe in a wedding, I suppose. I guess that was the point of the hypothetical.

MATT: Well, first of all, they don’t even cater, I believe, it’s what it says on their Yelp page so that’s an issue in and of itself.

NASIR: That’s one of the complaints? They don’t cater?

MATT: Yeah, and, I guess, if you had a couple and it was two guys or two girls, then could piece it together. Is that a pun? Piece of pizza? No, not really.

NASIR: Almost.

MATT: I was going to say “they could slice it together” but that doesn’t really make sense. So, yeah, that’s the whole thing. They didn’t even do anything. It was a hypothetical situation. I wonder if the news channel was just going out, trying to find businesses because, in this town of Walkerton, Indiana – which is a very small town, I believe a population of just over 2,000 and there’s not many restaurants there in general.

NASIR: Wait. Their population is 2,000?

MATT: I thought so?

NASIR: That’s really small – which goes to the ridiculousness of this Yelp page, right? Because, obviously, all these Yelpers didn’t actually go to this pizza place.

MATT: Okay. So, Walkerton, the census in the year 2000, there was 2,274 people. So, let’s give them a little bit and say it’s under 3,000.

NASIR: Okay.

MATT: It’s not many. First of all, I don’t even know how those businesses even survive because that’s so few people there but this is a small business that never would have been affected but they happen to be the first business that really came out and said anything in regards to this act. And so, they’re going to get a lot of backlash – or at least you would think – and (spoiler alert!) I guess they did get a lot of backlash and you kind of alluded to it. Their Yelp page has just been absolutely crushed. I believe they had two reviews prior to all this that were both positive and now they have – you know, at the time of recording right now – 328 reviews, only going up. I like how someone put a picture, I’m looking at this right now, just a picture of a pizza that was uploaded today.

NASIR: Looks like a good pizza, too.

MATT: I doubt that’s actually even from there. I think that’s just, like, a standard pizza photo. It’s just weird that someone would put that up there anyways.

NASIR: There are some funny pictures on here, too. People are just posting ridiculousness stuff.

MATT: I saw some of that.

NASIR: Again, of course, this is the ridiculousness of Yelp. All these people, 328 reviews, almost about 10 percent of the population of the city it’s in and yet everything’s five. There’s this interesting three-star review. It’s really long. It starts off by saying, you know, “Disclaimer: I’ve never been to Memories so gave them a three.” As if, like, “Okay. I’m going to review this place and, since I haven’t been here, instead of giving them a five or a one, I’m just going to give them three stars.” But, again, this is the ridiculousness of Yelp. Why is this part of their so-called sophisticated algorithm to review a place? I mean, none of these reviews have actually been here. How many did you say were on there before?

MATT: Two.

NASIR: Two.

MATT: So, it’s one of a couple of things. It’s people leaving reviews on the extreme end. So, either one star or five stars if they’re pro or against the new law. But there’s also the people that are leaving three stars, it seems like they’re just coming here to promote their own beliefs on things. Like, that’s not the spot for Yelp and that’s one of the problems with Yelp, like you said. None of this has anything to do with the actual pizza place – like, the service or the food. There’s another 377 reviews that I guess have been kicked out of their algorithm so that’s roughly 800 reviews from people in the last however many days. But we’ve barely gotten into this story and all the things that have happened over the last couple of weeks. There’s still a lot to cover so I think we’re going to cut this in two parts here – our first ever two-part episode of Legally Sound Smart Business.

NASIR: And let’s save all the good parts to the second part as if basically everyone just wasted their time listening to the first part because all the good stuff’s in the second part. It’s almost as if they just read the prologue… is it called a prologue or an introduction to a story? And then just stopped, wasting your time.

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Legally Sound Smart Business

A business podcast with a legal twist

Legally Sound Smart Business is a podcast by Pasha Law PC covering different topics in business advice and news with a legal twist with attorneys Nasir Pasha and Matt Staub.
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