CA Supreme Court in Hassell Reveals Sec. 230 is a Catch-22

First, a refresher. The broad immunity provision known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was adopted in 1996 as an incentive to internet service providers to take affirmative steps to remove material. Congress wanted to encourage sites to take down certain types of offensive or obscene content (e.g. child porn), and the ISPs asserted, quite reasonably, that taking such action should not render them “publishers,” which would then leave their companies vulnerable to endless litigation stemming from unlawful content posted by users.

Since then, however, Section 230 immunity has been interpreted in court cases, and portrayed in the blogosphere, as a blanket protection allowing sites to take no action to mitigate harm by removing unlawful or harmful content. For the past 20 years, Section 230 has provided the statutory basis for ISP claims of universal neutrality—the “just a platform” argument—no matter what occurs on their sites. This premise was soundly rejected by both parties in Congress during hearings conducted in response to evidence that Russian agents had purchased American political ads on major platforms.

Hassell v. Bird

The facts of this case are quite simple. Ava Bird posted three reviews of Dawn Hassell’s law firm on Yelp, and these were held by a California trial court to be defamatory. No party disputes the unlawfulness of the reviews. Hassell successfully sued Bird and purposely did not name Yelp as a defendant in her litigation. The court ordered Bird to remove the reviews and also issued an order to Yelp to remove the content even though it was a non-party to the litigation.

Yelp, along with a host of amici, argued that the court order violated both Section 230 and its right to due process. A California Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, but this week, the State Supreme Court reversed, with the majority holding that the injunction indeed violates Section 230 and, thus, it was unnecessary to rule on the due process claim. Nevertheless, a concurring opinion by Justice Kruger does address the due process issue and holds that Yelp is correct in asserting that it had a right to its “day in court.”

So, as a practical matter, if you were in Hassell’s position, here’s the Catch-22 emphasized in this case: Section 230 forecloses the option of suing a web platform for harm stemming from unlawful conduct by a user. BUT, in this case, because Hassell did not name Yelp as a party, it then claimed that it was denied due process and, therefore, should not have to comply with a court order to remove Bird’s reviews. If that sounds like the platform gets to do whatever it wants, that’s because it is.

The CA Supreme Court described Hassell’s decision not to name Yelp a “litigation strategy” employed to “accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly.” If Congress chooses to address some of the the unintended consequences of Section 230, this seems like a statement worth underlining. Because Hassell’s decision not to sue Yelp—to hold them in no way liable for the harm done by Bird—appears to this reasonable observer as entirely consistent with the intent of 230 to shield platforms from costly and chronic litigation. As Justice Liu states in his dissent …

“No one has burdened Yelp with defending against liability for potentially defamatory posts. Here, the trial court ordered Yelp to remove postings that have been already adjudicated to be defamatory. Hassell sued Bird, not Yelp, and the litigation did not require Yelp to incur expenses to defend its editorial judgments or any of its business practices.”

That is the heart and soul of Section 230 at its origin, and it is consistent with recent declarations by both parties in Congress that the immunity in the CDA was never designed to obviate all platform responsibility. To the contrary, it was designed to encourage that responsibility. So, to the extent the majority opinion in this case rests on a plausible, or even reasonable, reading of the statute, this case may serve as guidance to Congress for considering revision of Section 230.

Is the language of 230 problematic?

Specifically, the majority opinion holds that Section 230(e)(3) bars this injunction against Yelp as a non-party due to the wording, “No cause of action my be brought and liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.” Thus, if it is this court’s understanding that the order for Yelp to remove unlawful content is a prohibited “cause of action,” but that a plaintiff is simultaneously barred by the same statute from actually suing Yelp, then it may be time for Congress to reconcile exactly this discrepancy.

I agree completely that Yelp should not be sued, or otherwise held liable, for any harm that may have been done to Hassell through the unlawful conduct of Bird. But in the realities of the digital market, where serious harm is both easily and cheaply effected, there is no justice in holding that a platform’s immunity from costly liability extends to an immunity from taking responsible, mitigating action which costs nothing.  In this regard, Justice Kruger’s concurring opinion also recognizes the difficult realities of the statute, stating…

“Section 230 has brought to an end to a number of lawsuits seeking remedies for a wide range of civil wrongs accomplished through Internet postings—including, but not limited to, defamation, housing discrimination, negligence, securities fraud, cyberstalking, and material support of terrorism.”

And in fairness, she further states…

“Whether to maintain the status quo is a question only Congress can decide. But at least when it comes to addressing new questions about the scope of section 230 immunity, we should proceed cautiously, lest we inadvertently forbid and even broader swath of legal action than Congress could reasonably have intended.”

Justice Cuéllar concurred with the opinion on the basis that a proper finding of fact was not made regarding Yelp’s conduct that would render it properly a subject to an injunction as a non-party. But at the same time, he had this to say about Section 230 immunity …

“To the extend the Communications Decency Act merits its name, it is because it was not meant to be—and it is not—a reckless declaration of the independence of cyberspace. Nothing in section 230 allows Yelp to ignore a properly issued court order meant to stop the spread of defamatory or otherwise harmful information on the Internet.”

Ouch. That allusion to Barlow is a pretty solid kick right in the EFFin gut. And that’s from a justice ruling in Yelp’s favor—for now. Suffice to say, there is plenty in this decision that stops short of the internet activist view that Section 230 immunity is both absolute and sacrosanct. Even the majority opinion is tempered by editorial comments acknowledging that platform irresponsibility causes tangible social harm.

As a final comment, I’ll pose the following food for thought:

Once a court has vitiated the role of the original author of some unlawful content (i.e. Bird has been found guilty and ordered under pain of contempt to remove her reviews), how is it that the platform which continues to publish the unlawful content is not then held to be the “author” of that content? If I plagiarize a work, I am guilty as the “author” of the plagiarism; and if I further use plagiarized material to defame someone, the original author is not liable for the defamation; I am.

Moreover, if Bird requests that Yelp remove her reviews and they do not, is Yelp not violating her First Amendment rights by means of coerced speech; and are they also not potentially liable for forcing her into a state of contempt of court by means of that coerced speech?

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