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California Supreme Court rules Yelp can’t be ordered to remove defamatory posts

Online review site Yelp.com cannot be ordered to remove posts about a San Francisco law firm that a judge determined were defamatory, a divided California Supreme Court ruled Monday. The decision overturns several lower court rulings. 

Internet companies had warned that the decision in the closely watched case could be used to silence online speech. The California justices agreed in a 4-3 opinion, saying removal orders such as the one attorney Dawn Hassell obtained against Yelp "could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform."

In 2013, Hassell sued Ava Bird, a client she had briefly represented, saying that Bird had defamed her on Yelp by falsely claiming that her firm failed to communicate with Bird, among other things. 

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald Sullivan found the online statements defamatory and ordered Bird and Yelp to remove them. Hassell said Bird did not answer her lawsuit and did not remove the posts, so she had to seek a court order demanding that Yelp do it. A second judge and a state appeals court upheld Sullivan's order.

But the Supreme Court of California has now overturned it. 

Hassell's attorney, Monique Olivier, said in a statement that the ruling "stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence." She said her client was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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"Ms. Hassell did exactly what she should have done," Olivier said Monday. "After both the defamer and Yelp refused to remove untrue and damaging statements, she obtained a judgment against the defamer, and sought to enforce that judgment by requiring Yelp to remove the defamation."

Aaron Schur, a deputy general counsel for Yelp, praised the move in a blog post Monday. He argued the lower court ruling would have allowed businesses unhappy about negative reviews to get them removed via a new legal pathway.  The decision assures online publishers in California that they "cannot be lawfully forced to remove third-party speech through enterprising abuses of the legal system," he wrote.

With online reviews taking on an increasingly important role in shaping companies' reputations, some businesses are turning to the courts for relief. In Manhattan, a gynecologist is suing his patient for $1 million over poor online reviews. Google is also the target of a lawsuit from a California winery whose owner says the establishment's negative reviews are from an online troll who has never visited the business.

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Internet giants Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft said in a letter to the California Supreme Court that the lower court 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."

Three of the California Supreme Court justices agreed with Yelp that the removal order violated a 1996 federal law that courts have widely interpreted as prohibiting internet companies from being treated as the speaker or publisher of users' posts.

"In substance, Yelp is being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in an opinion joined by associate justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said nothing in the 1996 federal law allows Yelp to "ignore a properly issued court order meant to stop the spread of defamatory or otherwise harmful information on the internet." 

Cuellar also wrote: "Even — indeed, perhaps especially — in a society that values free expression, people expect courts and statutes to offer them minimal protections from disparaging misrepresentations or abject lies deliberately circulated to the public."

The dissent raises important questions about how to govern the internet, said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Still, Goldman said the appeals court ruling upholding the removal order against Yelp was an "outlier" and would have led to "open season on internet companies."

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