Businesses can’t sue Yelp to get defamatory reviews removed, California’s Supreme Court has ruled. The decision overturns a lower court’s ruling against Yelp, affirming rules that shield internet platforms from legal liability over users’ posts.
Yesterday, the court handed down a decision on Hassell v. Bird, in which a law firm sued a disgruntled client for posting falsely negative reviews. Yelp wasn’t directly involved in the lawsuit, but when a court sided with the law firm, it included an order that made Yelp — in addition to the client — responsible for removing the offending reviews. Yelp argued that this order violated the broad protections granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but lower courts disagreed, saying that the removal order wasn’t directly threatening Yelp with liability.
An ‘end-run’ against laws protecting internet platforms
The Supreme Court found this interpretation of Section 230 overly narrow, and wrote that holding Yelp to a different standard because it wasn’t named as a defendant was just an “end-run” around the law. A removal order like the one against Yelp could “interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform,” and “the unique position of internet intermediaries convinced Congress to spare republishers of online content ... from this sort of ongoing entanglement with the courts.” The Yelp reviewer is still legally required to take the review down, in addition to paying damages to the law firm.
Yelp celebrated the decision in a blog post, saying that “online publishers in California can be assured that they cannot be lawfully forced to remove third-party speech through enterprising abuses of the legal system.” However, the attorney representing the defamed law firm called it “an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence.” The Associated Press reports that the firm is considering an appeal to the US Supreme Court.
Yelp reviews are a legal battlefield
Yelp reviews are a legally contentious space. In addition to individual defamation suits like the one above, aggrieved Yelp users have unsuccessfully sued the company for alleged offenses like extorting businesses with review scores and inflating stock prices by exaggerating its reliability. In 2016, Congress passed a law to stop companies from suppressing customer reviews. And last month, one Yelp user was sentenced to prison for writing falsely negative reviews — which he left in retaliation after getting a previous prison term for extorting the business with negative reviews.
Section 230 has also suffered some blows this year. Its scope was limited by recently signed law FOSTA, and it’s been misinterpreted to argue that social media platforms shouldn’t be allowed to moderate user posts on their platforms. This ruling doesn’t change any of that — but the decision makes it easier for platforms to fight claims that they’re required to moderate posts.