Review Site Can't Be Ordered to Remove Posts, California Justices Rule

Review Site Can't Be Ordered to Remove Posts, California Justices Rule
Rhett Pardon

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court yesterday reversed an appellate court ruling that upheld an order that required Yelp to remove a negative review of a business.

State justices held in their decision that federal immunity under Section 230 applies to a website that is a repository of views posted by third parties.

The case has been closely watched because removal orders such as the one obtained against Yelp could be used to silence online speech and undermine the viability of a platform.

Industry attorney Corey D. Silverstein told XBIZ that the decision is a “much needed win for Section 230, which has been under a tremendous amount of attack as of late.”

“Good for Yelp for having the guts to make its own decision when it ignored a judgment from the trial court that was riddled with irregularities,” Silverstein said. “Yelp took a chance in ignoring the trial court and ultimately won. Unfortunately, most ISPs would have probably gone along with the trial court’s original judgment.”

The ruling comes in a case where a woman, Ava Bird, posted a one-star review of the Hassell Law Group on Yelp, expressing her displeasure with its representation in her personal injury action, advising, “[T]o save your case, steer clear of this law firm!”

The San Francisco law firm and its owner, attorney Dawn Hassell, sued Bird, claiming the review was libelous. That lawsuit resulted in a default judgment.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge awarded Hassell and her firm damages and ordered Bird to remove the “steer clear” review, which she has not done.

The judgment also required Yelp to remove the offending review.

Yelp, which was not a party to the lawsuit, was served with the judgment. It moved to set aside the default, claiming in part that it violated both due process and Section 230.

The San Francisco judge denied Yelp’s motion, and a state court of appeal affirmed on several bases.

California justices granted review solely on the due process and Section 230 issues.

By requiring Yelp to delete the offending review, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye explained in the ruling, Yelp was being treated as the publisher of the content in violation of the statute.

“The question here is whether a different result should obtain because plaintiffs made the tactical decision not to name Yelp as a defendant,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Put another way, we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly. We believe the answer is no.”

Silverstein noted that the California Supreme Court got this decision "100 percent correct" and that the ruling showed why Section 230 is important for free-speech liberties.

“In this case had the plaintiff named Yelp as a defendant from the beginning of the lawsuit, Yelp would have surely sought dismissal on Section 230 grounds and would most likely have prevailed,” Silverstein said. “I suspect that plaintiff/their counsel recognized that they had little to no chance in prevailing against Yelp and so they strategically proceeded against the named defendant, who incidentally put up no fight and lost by default.

“Could you imagine an internet where review sites, blogs, and web hosts could be held liable for content posted by third parties?” Silverstein asked.

“This case should be viewed as a reminder to everyone about the importance of Section 230 and why government at all levels must be challenged when it attempts to shrink the breadth of Section 230 protection.”

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