Yelp Wins Case that Could Have Forced Removal of Negative Review

Justice is blind, even if she's teetering on the brink of an apocalyptic wasteland

Imagine, if you will, a world where businesses could sue you for leaving a negative Yelp review—and that if their lawyers could prove your statement was in some way false and defamatory, could get a court order forcing you and Yelp to remove the review. Such a world narrowly, though perhaps temporarily, avoided thanks to the California Supreme Court.

Justice is blind, even if she's teetering on the brink of an apocalyptic wasteland
Justice is blind (still, a little)

At issue was a lawsuit from attorney Dawn Hassel who sued a former client for leaving a bad Yelp review. They argued the client’s review was false and defamatory, and won two lower court rulings ordering the client to remove the post. And when that client failed to do so, Ms. Hassel won a lower court ruling ordering Yelp to remove it.

Yelp appealed those orders up to the California Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling in favor of Yelp, according to the AP. Yelp’s argument was that the company was a publisher, and that existing laws and precedent shield the company from being responsible for the opinions being expressed by its users.

A Close Case

The ruling was close, but it was even closer than it looks. Three of the justices agreed with Yelp that they couldn’t be held accountable for the third party opinion. The 4th justice issued a separate opinion that Yelp wasn’t party to the original suit, and thus never had its day in court. Ms. Hassel is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case is interesting to me on several different levels. On the one hand, a lot of negative reviews are written by people who are clearly the bad guys in their own narratives. Many more are written by astroturfing competitors, and still others are written by people with some kind of grudge or obsession. But, I find it fairly easy to sort the wheat from the chaff, and I personally learn a lot from negative reviews. This case might have made negative reviews an endangered species, and that is worrisome in numerous ways.

My biggest concern is that companies and the wealthy can generally afford better attorneys than the vast majority of people. Put another way, companies and the wealthy can afford attorneys, while most people can’t. An attorney (or a team of attorneys) proving in court that a negative review is false does not necessarily mean it really was false. Down that path lies a world where no one writes negative reviews and no one publishes them, making capital’s speech more free than everyone else’s.

While the status quo is far from perfect, I think the world in which this ruling went differently is just that much worse, and I’m glad Ms. Hassel lost.

Please don’t sue me, ma’am.

2 thoughts on “Yelp Wins Case that Could Have Forced Removal of Negative Review

  • Between this attempt at restricting free speech
    And the EUs attempt to restrict and block linking
    And the US’s repeal of Net Neutrality
    I fear that the Internet is about to lose most of its appeal. Most of the reason it has become such a great thing. Much of the reason it has revolutionized the world. Much of the benefit it has as a free space for everyone to contribute and share.
    I fear they are killing the Golden Goose.

  • In these days of Trolls I am not certain this is a bad thing. I contacted a person to do some work for me, but when I read 2 Yelp reviews it made me hesitate. I called the guy about it saying I was nervous about doing business with him because of these reviews and he was very irritated.
    To this day I am not certain that I did the right thing by pulling my business back from him. He came recommended by a tangential friend, but I couldn’t overcome the couple of negative reviews.

    Were those review legit? Were they accurate or a misunderstanding? Were they completely made up?

    I don’t know.

    The problem is, that in this day and age of trolling, it is hard to know what to believe. What does or does not have validity.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.