The California Supreme Court ruled last week in a divided opinion that Yelp.com, the online business review site, cannot be legally required to remove defamatory posts against a San Francisco law firm via a court order. In a 4-3 opinion, the state’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling.
Forcing a site to take down user-generated posts “can impose substantial burdens” on the business, according to the majority opinion. “Even if it would be mechanically simple to implement such an order, compliance still could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform.”
Yelp had defended its position that the negative posts should be left up or taken down by the user, indicating that being court order to remove them could open the door to being ordered to remove all other negative commentary, leaving consumers with an unfair, overly positive assessment of the businesses profiled on the site. It said the order violated the protections granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is meant “to promote the free exchange of information and ideas over the Internet and to encourage voluntary monitoring for offensive or obscene material.” However, the lower court initially disagreed because Yelp wasn’t a named defendant in the original lawsuit. It had only received an order after the user failed to delete the post.
Attorney Dawn Hassell’s 2013 lawsuit had alleged a client she only briefly represented in a personal injury case defamed her on the review site by making false claims, including that her law firm had failed to properly communicate. The San Francisco Superior Court had found the statements to indeed by defamatory and ordered the client and Yelp to remove them.
Hassell indicated the client failed to abide by this judgment so she was forced to seek a court order demanding that Yelp comply. The company appealed, and a state appeals court upheld the order. However, the higher court ultimately rejected it, stating, the lower court’s argument indicating Yelp wasn’t a named defendant was just an “end-run” around the law, and “the unique position of internet intermediaries convinced Congress to spare republishers of online content…from this sort of ongoing entanglement with the courts.” The former client must still take down the negative review, in addition to paying defamation damages to the law firm.
Yelp celebrated the victory, posting in a blog, “online publishers in California can be assured that they cannot be lawfully forced to remove third-party speech through enterprising abuses of the legal system.” Hassell’s attorney, Monique Olivier, however, was not in a celebratory mood following the judgment. She said that the state’s Supreme Court ruling “stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence.” She said her client was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Civil liberties groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had stood by Yelp throughout the litigation. The A.C.L.U. filed an amicus brief in the Yelp case in 2016, arguing that the removal order “requires Yelp to remove speech from its website without giving it any opportunity to argue that the speech in question is constitutionally protected.”