The California State Supreme Court has ruled that review platform Yelp.com cannot be ordered to remove negative posts in a landmark decision that may have widespread implications for businesses and their online profiles.
In 2013, attorney Dawn Hassell briefly represented a client in a personal injury case. That client falsely claimed, among other things, that Hassell’s firm failed to communicate with them, and left negative reviews about Hassell’s firm on Yelp.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald Sullivan agreed that the statements were defamatory. He ordered the client and Yelp.com to remove them. Hassell says the client failed to comply so she had to seek a court order demanding Yelp remove the posts.
In a split, 4-3 decision, justices on the California Supreme Court found that ordering the removal of negative reviews “could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform.”
Hassell’s attorney, Monique Olivier, disputed the assertion. “Ms. Hassell did exactly what she should have done,” she said after the decision was announced. “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.”
She warned that the ruling could create a slippery slope for businesses. The ruling “stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence,” she added.
Olivier said she and her client were considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yelp asserted the order to remove the posts violated a 1996 federal law that protects online platforms from liability for negative posts by third parties. The law, they say, prevents companies like Yelp from being seen as endorsers of such reviews.
The justices agreed. “In substance, Yelp is being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews,” wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in her opinion.
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