Yelp’s local search and reviews site does not need to remove negative comments posted by a user about businesses or services, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday, in a 4-to-3 decision. The closely watched case in California could have implications nationally.
The court ruled that federal law protected internet companies from liability for statements written by others. As such, the decision to remove posts is at the company’s discretion, the court stated.
Forcing a site, like Yelp, to remove a user’s post “can impose substantial burdens” on an online review company, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the court’s decision. “Even if it would be mechanically simple to implement such an order, compliance still could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform.”
Moderating speech on online platforms has become a controversial topic in recent years. Review companies have argued they should not be liable for posts published by others on their platform.
The California Supreme Court case stems from a San Francisco lawyer, Dawn Hassell, who accused a client of posting a defamatory comment against her on Yelp. Initially, a San Francisco Superior Court ruled that the posts were defamatory and instructed the client and Yelp to remove the comments. A second judge and a state appeals court upheld that ruling. But the California Supreme Court overturned the decision.
Yelp argued the previous courts’ decisions could provide a legal pathway for businesses seeking to have negative posts removed. The company cited the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet companies from liability for third party users’ posts.
Opponents, however, argued that negative comments posted on a review site could greatly harm a company’s reputation and there needs to be a way for firms and individuals to protect themselves from what others post.
The ruling “stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence,” Hassell’s lawyer, Monique Oliver, told the Associated Press. Oliver says that Hassell was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.