The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of online review site Yelp.com after a lawyer attempted to use the courts to have a negative review forcefully removed.
As Reason previously reported, personal-injury lawyer Dawn Hassell of the Hassell Law Group accused former client Ava Bird of defaming her law firm on Yelp. Hassell sued Bird in 2013, but Bird did not appear—it is believed that Bird was never served with court papers. The San Francisco County Superior Court ruled in Hassell's favor by default and awarded her $557,918. The court ordered Bird to remove the reviews and Yelp to "remove all reviews posted by AVA BIRD under user names 'Birdzeye B.' and 'J.D.,'" despite not having definitively confirmed that Bird used the alias "J.D."
Though Yelp lawyers said they often comply with such orders, they took issue with the nature of the proceedings, as explained by Yelp Deputy General Counsel Aaron Schur in a blog post:
When Yelp appealed, the Court of Appeal doubled down on the lower court's decision, ruling that Yelp was not a publisher at all, had no right to a hearing in connection with an order to remove reviews, and was not protected by the Communications Decency Act (CDA), the law Congress passed to protect online publishers to shield them them from responsibility for the speech of others. The CDA gives online platforms the right to publish (or not publish) the ideas and opinions of users without the threat of being held liable for that content or forced to remove it. This allows the internet to flourish. The Court of Appeal held that by avoiding suing Yelp directly (to Yelp, a violation of due process) also allowed the plaintiff to sidestep the CDA's broad immunity.
On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Yelp. The justices argued that such orders "could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform." Hassell's lawyer, Monique Olivier, criticized the ruling, saying that it "stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence."
Several organizations came to Yelp's defense, including the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The ACLU filed an amicus brief in 2016, citing, "the danger that the Court of Appeal's holding posed to online speech." EFF also filed a brief and argued in 2017 that the two lower courts in the case did not "understand that the First Amendment protects not only authors and speakers, but also those who publish or distribute their words." EFF also accused both courts of ignoring "the U.S. Supreme Court's clear holding that issuing an injunction against a non-party is a constitutionally-prohibited violation of due process."
In the same Yelp blog post citing the CDA, Schur made the following observation about Hassell's pursuance of Bird:
The Hassell Law Group, which has always been a highly-rated business on Yelp and currently maintains five stars, has spent many years in the court system (and endured the resulting Streisand Effect) in an effort to force Yelp to silence a pair of outlier reviews. As we have observed before, litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtrooms and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most—those of its clients.
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