Chameleon photos by leisuretime70
Imagine Elizabeth Proctor runs a corner café in a small town and that Abby Williams has held a grudge against Elizabeth ever since the former beat her out for cheerleader captain back in high school. So, feeling especially vindictive one afternoon, Abby writes a nasty review of Lizzy’s café on Yelp, complete with invented details about bugs and other health violations. In response, Elizabeth sues Abbigail for defamation and wins her case, and the court issues an injunction that includes an order for Yelp to remove the libelous reviews. But the website refuses to remove the reviews even though they’ve been held to be defamation under the law …
Perhaps it’s folly to contradict the opinions of I don’t know how many attorneys who filed a dozen amicus briefs on behalf of Yelp in a case now heading to the California Supreme Court, but I’m gonna. Because I believe the concerned parties—and this includes news media publishers whom I consistently support—may be overstating the hazardous implications of the California Appeals Court decision in the case of Hassell v Bird.
In 2013 Ava Bird posted negative reviews about San Francisco attorney Dawn Hassell on Yelp. Hassell believed the reviews to be defamatory rather than honest criticism. She sued Bird and won on a default judgment because Bird failed to appear in her own defense. Whether the reader would agree or not that Bird’s reviews were defamatory is immaterial at this point for two reasons: 1) the default judgment settles the matter as far as the law is concerned; and 2) in the context of what this case is now all about, let us at least agree that online reviews can easily be abused by a bad actor, or a competitor, to defame a person or business. (On a side note, Hassell’s firm has a lot of positive reviews on Yelp.)
In its judgment, the court issued an injunction, which included an order for Yelp to remove Bird’s reviews. This is a standard form of relief provided by courts in such cases. When an entity is not a named party in a litigation (i.e. they bear no liability for any harm), but this non-party is indirectly supporting some harm being done, the non-party can be prevented from continuing to support the harmful conduct. (See earlier post about Equustek v. Google.)
A typical example would be a court order that Visa and MasterCard stop processing payments for a named defendant in a case, regardless of the fact that these companies bear no liability for any harm that may have been done to a named plaintiff. If you were harmed by defamatory statements on a web platform, and proved defamation in court, you would naturally want the material removed even if you would not—and could not—hold the platform responsible for the harm you received.
But when it comes to complying with this type of injunctive relief, the owners of web platforms get a little antsy; and this includes the news media platforms, who filed an amicus brief in this case emphasizing the importance of comment sections to the overall vibrancy of journalism in the digital age. Other amici, including the EFF, the ACLU, and several web platforms, all assert that if the injunction ordered by the California Court of Appeals is upheld, this will harm due process, free speech, and the liability shield in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996) that is accorded to online service providers.
Although it is a habit of many site owners to behave as though the removal of any content is a slippery slope toward censorship, let’s remember that in just this one case, the plaintiff had to prove defamation in court and pray for injunctive relief—and that was in 2013, which is about 730 trillion tweets ago, just for perspective. But the real complication in this story comes when websites assert their interests under both the First Amendment and Section 230, because the two are fundamentally at odds.
First Amendment or Section 230: Pick One
In simple terms, Section 230 of the CDA protects websites and other service providers from liability stemming from the actions of its users. The underlying premise for this protection is that the platforms and providers are not “publishers” of the content (i.e. they are not the speakers). Section 230 is an important protection and one that indeed enables sites to function without undue risk of litigation. But the amici filing on behalf of Yelp also claim that Yelp and all web platforms have First Amendment rights at stake in Hassell, and the problem is this: if you’re not the speaker, you can’t claim a First Amendment right of speech because you’re not speaking! (read that as Lewis Black).
Yelp wants it both ways. They want the liability shield afforded by Section 230 on the basis that it is not the speaker but also want to claim First Amendment rights as if it were the speaker. Sometimes, web platforms claim to be protecting the free speech rights of their users, and this can be a valid claim in many instances. In fact, this concern appears central to the news media sites, who unquestionably have a right to support the free speech inherent in the dialogue between their journalists and the readers who write comments. These parties even point to several intriguing statistics suggesting that reader comments can, in many ways, improve the quality of their own reporting; and this should not be undervalued.
Nevertheless, I would argue that a site like Yelp, which trades substantially in consumer reviews of businesses on a local level, is already a very different forum from the comments section of a news site. More to the point, it is a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to someone acting with malicious intent to defame a specific proprietor. It seems that it would be far easier to demonstrate how a libelous review might meet the standard of “defamation” under the law than it would be to prove that a comment on a news story rises to this level of harm.
Still, if a comment on a news site were to spark events akin to a “Pizzagate,” the party who wrote the comment can be sued; and the site(s) hosting the defamatory content should be ordered to remove it—though I would think they’d want to do so voluntarily for the sake of their own reputations. What if Bird had said that Hassell was running a child porn ring through her law firm? Would we still be seeing the same response from Yelp and the other petitioners? Because from a purely legal standpoint, she might as well have written something equally outrageous since free speech does not protect defamation, regardless of how extreme or mild the defamation may be. And although it is true that websites often rightly defend the speech of their users, that motivation simply does not apply in this case because Bird’s reviews became unprotected speech the moment they were held to be defamatory.
Section 230 is Not a Blank Check
The due process piece of this puzzle gets a little deep into the weeds, and I will admit that there may be procedural complaints at play of which I am unaware; but as a general observation, the crux of Yelp’s due-process argument here appears to be based on the same paradoxical premise that the site can be both a speaker and a non-speaker at the same time. For instance, I offer the following from Yelp’s brief filed in 2016:
“The court reached its conclusion only by pretending that Yelp is nothing more than the ‘administrator’ of its website, ignoring Yelp’s role as a publisher of third-party authored speech and its First Amendment right to control its own website. [Emphasis added]
The court of appeal combined its unwarranted rejection of Yelp’s due process and First Amendment rights, with an unprecedented narrowing of the previously robust protection provided by the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230 (“Section 230”), to deny Yelp the federal immunity it would have received if Hassell had sued it. The court exalted the form of the action––namely, the fact that Yelp was tactically not named as a party—over the plain language of Section 230 and Congress’ clear intent in enacting it to protect websites from actions that treat them as publishers or distributors of third-party content.” [Emphasis added]
In paragraph one, Yelp is a publisher; and in paragraph two, it is not a publisher. Yelp asserts its First Amendment right to control its own website, which is certainly the case; but the liability shield provided by Section 230 is still predicated on the assumption that said control does not place them in the role of publisher (or speaker). But Yelp seems to be implying that if Hassell had named them in the suit–something she had no reason to do–they would then be defendants accorded a hearing and consequently have been able to argue their Section 230 right to not remove Bird’s reviews.
But nowhere in the statute is there any implication that a website does not have to comply with a court order to remove specific content, whether the site is a party or non-party to a litigation. In fact, the CDA actually began as an enforcement provision—a legislative effort to keep online pornography away from kids. Make of that what you will, but the addition of Section 230 was designed solely to limit the liability of service providers from any harm that may stem from content posted by third-party users. Neither its language nor its intent appears to excuse web companies from complying with generally applicable law; and an injunction directed at a non-party is a generally-applicable, standard form of relief. Website owners have no more right to ignore these orders than the payment processors mentioned hypothetically above.
While I sympathize with some of the principles being argued by Yelp and the other petitioners–particularly those of the news media sites who are both publishers and hosts of third-party content–I believe the arguments being made are seeking a decision that would be unbalanced. Any party that is held in a court of law to be harmed by some conduct should have access to the same remedies in the digital age as in the pre-digital age. Moreover, the cost of causing harm via the web is virtually zero while the cost of proving harm under the law still requires a substantial investment of time and financial resources. This alone should allay the fears of site owners that the decision of the appeals court in this case potentially swings the pendulum toward greater censorship online.