In a victory for free expression and online speech, the California Supreme Court ruled last week that Yelp, an online platform that publishes third-party reviews of local businesses, could not be ordered to take down defamatory reviews and ratings. The ruling upholds protections that prevent online publishers — including online news publishers, who often host and moderate forums and comment sections on their websites — from being compelled to remove speech that others have posted to their platforms.
The case, Hassell v. Bird, stems from California attorney Dawn Hassell’s 2014 defamation lawsuit against her former client, Ava Bird, alleging that Bird wrote two defamatory reviews of Hassell’s services on Yelp. After Bird did not show up in court, Hassell won the lawsuit by default judgment, and the trial court ordered Yelp to remove the two reviews from its website. Yelp, which was not named a defendant in the lawsuit, filed a motion to vacate the judgment, arguing that it infringed on Yelp’s due process and First Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed that denial.
When Yelp appealed the case to the California Supreme Court, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, along with a coalition of 18 media organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Yelp. The brief stressed that ordering Yelp to remove the reviews would impede the free exchange of ideas on online platforms and set a dangerous precedent that could allow courts to force other online publishers, including news publishers, to take down third-party information without first considering its value to the public and those publishers’ First Amendment rights to object to its removal.
“If the Court of Appeal’s decision is permitted to stand, Internet platforms that provide space for comment and discussion, like many news media websites, will effectively see their First Amendment interests in facilitating the discussions that take place in their forums curtailed without an opportunity to object, undermining the vitality of such forums as a place for the public to come together to debate issues,” the brief stated.
The brief further noted the vital role of online discussions in enhancing the quality of reporting and fostering relationships between journalists and their readers.
“Through forums and comment sections on news media websites, readers are given an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the issues that affect their lives, and to connect with reporters and other members of their community, all of which, in turn, strengthens the relationship between news media organizations and the public,” the brief stated.