Judge Rules Google Can Block Ads

Michael Hayes
WILMINGTON, Del. — In a ruling that could have far-reaching affects for online advertisers, a federal judge has said search engine giant Google can refuse ads as it sees fit.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Farnan dismissed a suit filed by Christopher Langdon against Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. In the suit, Langdon claimed that all three had stifled his right to free speech by refusing to publish his ads. The ads in questions promoted several websites critical of both North Carolina politicians and the Chinese government.

“Search engines have a 1st Amendment right to reject ads as part of their protected right to speak or not,” Farnan wrote.

The ruling invoked a 1974 decision — Miami Herald vs. Tornillo — that gave newspapers the right to refuse to carry ads.

Eric Goldman, director of the Santa Clara University School of Law’s High Tech Law Institute, said the ruling would help search engines in future legal disputes over ads.

“It's an emphatic and helpful win for the search engines,” he said. “Langdon is a griper. He sought to buy ads on the major search engines to advance his gripes. As expected, the judge emphatically shut down Langdon’s lawsuit, calling some of his claims ‘specious’ and ‘frivolous.’”

Google spokesman Ricardo Reyes said the company was pleased with the ruling, adding that the decision affirms the search engine’s right to enforce its own long-standing ad policy.

In his complaint, Langdon, who represented himself, said that Google had not said which, if any, of the company’s policies his ads violated. The ruling affirmed Google’s decision not to specify precisely how Langdon’s ads failed to comply.

“This will save Google time and frustration,” said Dana Todd, president of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization. “They can just invoke that standard sign over the cash register: ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.’”

Media and technology attorney Jon Hart said the ruling shouldn’t be a surprise to sophisticated online advertisers, but it will ease burdens on the search engine from numerous, smaller plaintiffs around the country.

“Next time, the defendant will pull up a copy of this opinion,” Hart said. “Google is not the public square, it is a media company.”

Attorney J.D. Obenberger told XBIZ the ruling affirms what many in the online world — adult and mainstream — already know: That websites are private property.

“We’ve always known that websites, even big ones like Google, own their own pages,” Obenberger said. “Websites aren’t licensed by government, like radio or TV, and it would astound me if a court said someone had the right to force Google to carry an ad.”

To read a copy of the complaint, click here.