According to the news report by the New York Times, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Yelp, the local search as well as reviews website. The Court ruled that the company did not need to remove the negative comments that were posted by users.
This case has been closely followed by the industry as it has huge implications for free speech on the internet. The Court stated in a 4 to 3 opinion that US federal law did not hold internet companies liable for statements written by other people.
The California Court went on to say that the discretion to remove any posts – negative or otherwise – lay with the company. According to the ruling, forcing an online company to remove negative user written posts could impose significant burdens on the company.
One of the most hotly debated topics is the question of moderating user posts on online platforms, especially as the influence and reach of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially. However, the online companies have long argued that they cannot be held responsible for others’ opinions.
The debate became really heated when San Francisco lawyer, Dawn Hassell accused a client for posting damaging statements about her on Yelp. The San Francisco Superior Court ruled in favor of Hassell and ordered Yelp to remove those negative comments.
Yelp contested that ruling, however, both the second judge was well the state appeals court also ruled in favor of the lawyer. Yelp refused to give in and took the matter to the Supreme Court of the state, arguing that the decisions given by the lower courts would give businesses a legal path to have negative comments about them removed.
Yelp cited the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online companies from liability against users’ posts. This Act, according to the Supreme Court ruling, was created to encourage the free exchange of information as well as ideas over online. It was also made to promote the voluntary monitoring of negative content.
The online search and reviews company was supported by multiple civil liberties group in its fight against Hassell, such as the American Civil Liberties Union as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Those who were supporting Hassell’s stance stated that the approach taken by Yelp in terms of free speech could be detrimental for those who were victims of abuse on the internet since they would not be able to get legal support.
In fact, Hassell’s lawyer, Monique Olivier stated that this ruling by the Supreme Court actually was an invitation to spread lies online without fear of reprisal. She also stated that her client was considering appealing to the United States Supreme Court.
According to the report by MarketWatch, while Yelp may have gotten off lightly in this case, the user who posted the comment against Hassell did not. In fact, she was forced to remove her post from the site and also has to pay the law firm for damages.
In fact, the report states that this is not a one-off case. A gynecologist from New York also sued a patient to the tune of $1 million for giving her a negative review on multiple sites including Yelp. A Kansas cattle farmer was also sued for posting a negative review about a Missouri resort on TripAdvisor.
According to a Northeastern University professor who studies online communities as well as reviews, users cannot just say whatever they want online. There are consequences to what they say online. In fact, sites such as Glassdoor and even Yelp offer their users tips on how to write negative reviews in such a way that they would not invite lawsuits.