Thursday, September 22, 2016
Supreme Court to Review Order Compelling Removal of Yelp Web Reviews
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The California Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider a lawsuit that Yelp.com warns could lead to the removal of negative reviews on the popular website.
The court voted unanimously, at its weekly conference in San Francisco, to take up an appeal by Yelp of lower court rulings requiring the company to remove posts that were critical of a San Francisco lawyer.
Yelp wants the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling in Hassell v. Bird, 247 Cal. App. 4th 1336, saying that if it’s allowed to stand, it will open the door for businesses to force the company to remove critical reviews.
Div. Four held that Yelp was an “aggrieved party” with standing to bring a nonstatutory motion challenging the removal order, even though it was not a party to the underlying lawsuit. But it affirmed the order to remove the defamatory reviews.
The panel, however, agreed with Yelp that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald J. Sullivan went too far in enjoining a client, Ava Bird, “from publishing or causing to be published any written reviews, commentary or descriptions” of attorney Dawn Hassell on Yelp or elsewhere online. That portion of the order amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint, Presiding Justice Ignacio Ruvolo wrote.
Hassell represented Bird for about 25 days in 2012 in connection with a personal injury matter. She withdrew because of communication difficulties and the client’s expressed dissatisfaction with the representation.
In January 2013, according to her complaint, Bird published a Yelp review that the attorney claims was inaccurate. Bird, however, refused Hassell’s demand to remove the review, and allegedly filed additional reviews using pseudonyms.
Hassell said she suspected the additional reviews were posted by Bird because the names or initials that were used did not correspond to any actual clients, and because of the similarity of the language and the timing of the postings.
Bird defaulted and a judgment awarding more than $550,000 in damages, along with the requested injunctive relief, was entered.
Ruvolo, in rejecting Yelp’s arguments, explained that an injunction can run against a nonparty, and that Yelp failed to show any reason why it should not be compelled to remove the defamatory reviews.
Ruvolo rejected the contention that §230(c)(1) of the federal Communications Decency Act protected Yelp from the injunctive order. The statute provides in part that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
The order, the presiding justice explained, “does not violate section 230 because it does not impose any liability on Yelp,” contrary to all of the cases cited by the company.
Hassell said Yelp is exaggerating the stakes of her legal effort. She referred comment yesterday to her attorney, Monique Olivier, who said in a statement she was not surprised the Supreme Court has taken up the case given the “amount of attention” it has received.
“This case is not one of a ‘bad review’ “ she said. “It is a case where a court adjudicated statements to be defamatory after receiving and reviewing evidence about the falsity of those statements.”
Aaron Schur, Yelp’s senior director of litigation, said the company looked forward to explaining to the court “how the lower court’s decision is ripe for abuse, contradicts longstanding legal principles, and restricts the ability of websites to provide a balanced spectrum of views online.”
Though its impact is in dispute, the case is getting attention from some of the biggest internet companies in the world, which say a ruling against Yelp could stifle free speech online and effectively gut other websites whose main function is offering consumers reviews of services and businesses.
Internet giants Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft said in a letter to the high court last month that the ruling “radically departs from a large, unanimous and settled body of federal and state court precedent” and could be used to “silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on behalf of itself and 30 other media organizations, said in another amicus letter that the Court of Appeal decision “grants plaintiffs a broad—and troublesome—power to censor online expression.”
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company