California Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Yelp Internet Speech Lawsuit

Yelp

The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a lawsuit regarding negative comments posted on popular review website Yelp.com. The lawsuit filed by Yelp challenges a lower court ruling which required the company to take down a negative review of a business, and the outcome will have wide-ranging implications on the regulation of internet commentary.

Yelp Pulled Into Libel Lawsuit

California attorney Dawn Hassell initiated the controversy in 2013 by suing former client Ava Bird for libel over a negative Yelp review that Bird posted regarding Hassell’s firm. Bird declined to respond to the lawsuit or show up to court to defend the libel claim, and Hassell was granted a default judgment resulting in an injunction ordering the removal of Bird’s negative review from Yelp’s website. Yelp, which was not a party to the original lawsuit between Hassell and Bird, objected to being forced to comply with a legal order without the opportunity to defend itself and requested an appeal of the decision.

Yelp argued that its free speech rights would be violated and the company would be unlawfully exposed to libel and defamation liability for posts by third party users. According to Yelp, a 1996 federal law treats companies that allow user commentary as speakers and protects websites from liability for posts while insulating them from judicial orders to remove offensive or defamatory language. Yelp argues that should the ruling in Hassell v Bird stand, then every company which allows for internet comments would need to be concerned about potential libel or defamation lawsuits by parties offended, even if the company itself has nothing to do with the content of the post.

Businesses like Yelp would be particularly vulnerable because the nature of review websites encourages occasional negative commentary and a legal mechanism which could force offensive comments to be removed may discourage users from participating.

California Supreme Court will Hear Yelp Lawsuit

A unanimous California Supreme Court agreed to hear Yelp’s appeal of a lower court ruling which rejected the company’s efforts to overrule the trial court’s injunction ordering the company to remove the offensive comment. Although the Court did not provide a reason for its decision, the justices likely took the case because of the wide-ranging effect a ruling could have on internet speech.  Yelp’s position has garnered the support of some of the largest internet companies in the world, many of which have expressed concern for a potential slippery slope of website liability should Yelp be forced to remove a comment in a libel lawsuit in which it was not a party.

Facebook and Twitter wrote a letter to the California Supreme Court last month cautioning that the ruling against Yelp “radically departs from a large, unanimous and settled body of federal and state court precedent” which could “silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech.” Additionally, free speech advocates and constitutional law scholars have filed briefs in the case arguing that by providing a means for third parties to demand internet businesses remove user comments, the Court would chip away at protected online speech.

Dawn Hassell’s attorney has publicly disagreed with those who argue the case could have a broad effect on internet speech, raising questions about the potential impact of a ruling against Yelp.

Legal Ramifications of California Yelp Lawsuit

Monique Olivier, who represents Hassell, released a statement to the press which downplays the impact of a victory for her client.  According to Olivier, “This case is not one of a ‘bad review” … It is a case where a court adjudicated statements to be defamatory after receiving and reviewing evidence about the falsity of those statements.”  Olivier went on to confront the free speech argument, arguing that those concerns misrepresent the issue by saying, “The speech at issue here is not protected speech but speech adjudicated to be defamatory. There are decades of jurisprudence finding that defamatory speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

Others, including many high profile internet-based businesses, disagree and have cautioned the California Supreme Court that an adverse ruling against Yelp would set a dangerous precedent which other courts could use to compel any website to more actively police online speech. Although the speech in Hassell v Bird has been deemed defamatory, legal scholars anticipate that California’s highest court will side with Yelp on this issue and avoid a potentially thorny and wide-ranging decision which will raise more questions about online speech than it will answer.

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