The California Supreme Court this fall agreed to review a closely watched case that could affect the legal standing of review sites.
At issue is whether Yelp.com must remove reviews that were deemed in court to be defamatory.
The case involves a 2013 suit filed by the Hassell Law Group against Ava Bird, a woman who had hired the firm to represent her in a personal injury case. The complaint alleged that during their 25-day attorney-client relationship, Bird failed to return emails or phone calls and missed a key appointment, among other details.
Hassell severed the relationship, and soon after, Bird posted a one-star review of the firm on Yelp, the complaint stated. The review said that Hassell “made a bad situation worse,” “reneged on the case,” and never communicated with her or with the opposing party.
Attorney Dawn Hassell called the accusations in Bird’s post “provable lies,” noting that her firm possessed copies of many emails with Bird, letters and calls to the opposing party, and that Bird had more than a year and a half left on the statute of limitations to sue on her claim.
Hassell sued Bird for libel in 2013 and won a judgment of more than $550,000, along with a court order that required Bird to remove the reviews from Yelp’s website. When Bird failed to remove the review, Hassell obtained a court order that required Yelp to remove the post from its site.
Yelp, which was not named as a defendant in the case, cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from liability for user postings. An appellate court disagreed, noting that its order “does not treat Yelp as a publisher of Bird’s speech, but rather as the administrator of the forum that Bird utilized to publish her defamatory reviews.”
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and Pinterest wrote to the court to warn that upholding the lower court order could “silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech,” but Hassell doesn’t see it that way.
Bird’s review “was full of malicious lies which [she] knew were false, which she published intentionally to harm my business after we withdrew from her case,” Hassell said in a statement. “Once a court has heard and reviewed the speech posted on line and declared it to be defamatory, the argument for free speech is over.”
A ruling is expected in the coming months.