In June 2018, a tavern in Boston, Massachusetts, was heavily criticized online after serving patrons who had come from a “free speech” rally hosted by a group with far-right affiliations. Critics claimed the patrons in the restaurant were openly wearing hate symbols and intimidating other customers, but the owners of the restaurant denied that characterization. Eventually, the negative online rhetoric grew so intense that Yelp, an online review forum, removed reviews on the restaurant’s page about the incident, a common practice the company uses for establishments involved in controversy.
Noelle and Sean Somers have owned the Green Dragon Tavern, located near Boston’s Freedom Trail, which connects numerous historic sites, for 25 years. It was named after a historical tavern — which some historians have called the “Headquarters of the American Revolution” — where the Sons of Liberty and other rebels against English rule of the American colonies often met. Though the contemporary Green Dragon publicizes itself as “a favorite haunt of Paul Revere…and John Hancock,” and claims to have “a long and rich history, playing an important part in the freedom of Boston during the War of Independence,” according to its website, it is located at a different address from the original and is apparently unrelated to the historical establishment in any official capacity.
The Boston Free Speech Coalition (BFSC) is an activist group that describes itself as non-partisan, saying it stands “for free speech in all forms from all sides of the political spectrum.” However, several of the group’s recent activities, including pro-gun rights events and a “March Against Sharia Law,” indicate that it has a right-leaning agenda.
The group has held several “free speech rallies” over the past year, in conjunction with the conservative group Resist Marxism; these events have also sometimes taken a far-right tack, and have included speakers who accused the advocacy group Black Lives Matter of being a terrorist organization, according to Boston.com.
An August 2017 rally organized by the BFSC — which took place soon after the violent “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — originally had speakers with white supremacist and other racist ties scheduled to speak, according to The Boston Globe. One of these was Augustus Invictus, an activist involved in the Charlottesville rally who had gained white supremacist support while vying for a Florida Senate seat in 2016; Invictus was disinvited from the Boston rally in 2017, due to his “willingness to support violence, as well as his Holocaust denial,” one member of the BFSC told the Globe.
On June 2, 2018, the BFSC and Resist Marxism organized a pro-free speech and pro-gun rights rally outside the Massachusetts statehouse entitled “June 2nd for the Second.” Though neither group’s primary focus is Second Amendment gun rights, the rally was intended to protest proposed “red flag” legislation that would allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms from individuals considered to pose a threat to themselves or others. On July 3, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed that “red flag” legislation into law.
Following the June 2 rally, a group of attendees went to the Green Dragon Tavern for lunch. Whether the patrons openly displayed any apparent affiliations with hate groups at the time remains unclear. But in a review of the restaurant on Yelp, one person claimed, “I was there and a group of about 20 idiots openly wearing swastikas and other white supremacist symbols walked in. They were purposely intimidating other patrons even after management was informed several times and they did NOTHING!!”
However, Noelle and Sean Somers both insisted that the rally attendees were not wearing anything to suggest they were affiliated with a hate group, and did not appear to be intimidating other customers. “The group was quiet, non-descript. They weren’t wearing anything to show hate or anything of that nature,” Noelle Somers told Boston 25 News.
A group of people who were not patrons of the tavern arrived outside the restaurant and, declaring to the manager that the Green Dragon was serving neo-Nazis, demanded the rally attendees be kicked out.
“None of these people were patrons. Not once did a patron within our establishment voice concern,” Noelle Somers insisted.
The manager approached the rally attendees inside to ensure they were not promoting hateful ideologies or threatening other restaurant patrons, but the group outside was unsatisfied by this effort, according to footage from a security camera that was shared with media outlets, including CBS Boston.
“They did say they had a large network and they would take us down” if ejected, Somers told Boston 25.
Within a week of the incident, the establishment received more than 125 negative comments on social media platforms such as Facebook and Yelp. as well as calls for boycotts, according to CBS Boston. “This bar knowingly served Neo-Nazis, which put other customers in danger. I don’t know what the management was thinking,” read one Yelp review. The Boston Feminists for Liberation wrote on Facebook that the tavern had been “playing host to members of women hating, gay bashing, white supremacist groups,” reported Boston 25.
The Somers made efforts to clarify their position and clear their restaurant’s name, including calling a press conference on June 8. “We have never and will never tolerate hate, and for it to be portrayed that we do is just disgusting,” Noelle Somers said. “If there is any racist propaganda put out or doing a Nazi salute or someone saying something racially, in any way shape or form to another person, they will not be allowed in,” she told CBS Boston.
The tavern owners said they were dismayed not only by the negative online rhetoric, but also by the subpar monitoring efforts of the platforms their critics used, particularly Facebook and Yelp. In their view, the companies’ complacency allowed critics to launch a misinformation campaign against their restaurant.
“We have been victimized by a coordinated social media smear campaign that has damaged our family business. Protest groups have falsely accused us of catering to Nazis, which is outrageous and disgusting,” the couple wrote Newsweek. “We now demand that media platforms such as Yelp, Twitter and Facebook incorporate stricter editorial policies to prevent false information from spreading in the future.”
Yelp issues an “active cleanup alert”
Yelp soon responded to the onslaught of dozens of negative reviews of the Green Dragon Tavern related to this encounter, according to Boston 25. Yelp’s policies dictate that posts unrelated to an establishment’s quality — such as those about its politics or controversies it is involved in — are irrelevant to the site’s purpose and should be removed. These policies are intended to help protect the reputation of establishments embroiled in conflict or receiving significant media attention by ensuring the posts substantively discuss the establishment’s intended service.
“When local businesses make the news or do something controversial, their Yelp business page can be affected. Many people come to Yelp to share their views about the news. Media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines, one of which deals with relevance,” the online review forum told Newsweek.
Such alerts remain active until the page’s traffic returns to normal. As of July 24, 2018, the alert for the Green Dragon Tavern was still active: “This business is being monitored by Yelp’s Support team for content related to media reports,” the warning read.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded July 26, 2018