A small hotel in upstate New York suddenly found itself in a media maelstrom (and a flood of bad online reviews) on Monday, and all for what it says was a joke.
The Union Street Guest House in the Catskill Mountains in Hudson, New York, got slammed by bad online reviews after a story in The New York Post stated it had a policy of charging customers $500 for each negative online review posted by wedding guests after they stayed in the Greek Revival establishment, built in 1830.
As of early morning Monday, the hotel’s website did have a policy statement in its weddings section that stated: "If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review. (Please NOTE we will not charge this fee &/or will refund this fee once the review is taken down)."
Later Monday, that policy was removed. When contacted by CNBC, the hotel said it was all in jest. "The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced," the Union Street Guest House said in an email to CNBC.
The story in The New York Post, followed by other media outlets, yielded dozens of one-star reviews on Yelp and one from Jonathan S. who wrote: "That's funny. Yelp doesn't publish real reviews I've gotten that are positive but they'll publish all these negative reviews from people that have never been to the establishment."
Experts say the policy probably would have been difficult to enforce, anyway.
"Legally it probably has the same effect as a no-smoking policy," said Gene Policinski, the chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center. "It's maybe more to do with intimidation than enforcement."
A policy like that wouldn’t fall under First Amendment laws because the inn is not operated by the government, so enforcement would likely have fallen under contract law as an agreement between the hotel owner and the customer, Policinski said.