California Court Not Yet Ready To Undermine The Entire Internet; Rules Yelp Can't Be Forced To Delete A Review

from the Section-230-not-quite-dead-yet dept

In 2016, Techdirt wrote about a troubling case, Hassell v. Bird, in which a court issued an injunction telling Yelp to delete a review after a lawyer won a default judgment in a defamation case. The court ignored that Section 230 of the CDA says that platforms like Yelp cannot be held liable (and thus can't be legally mandated) to remove content of third parties, and didn't seem to care that Yelp wasn't even a party in the case.

The good news is that Yelp won its appeal of the injunction. The bad news, though, is that it barely won, and the relatively elegant, cogent opinion finding that Section 230 prevented the injunction is tempered in its effect by only being a plurality decision: victorious in its ultimate holding only because of a concurring vote on different grounds that provided a less-than-full-throated endorsement of the plurality's conclusion.

This case began when someone, who the plaintiff Hassell believes to be Bird, had posted a critical review of the Hassell law firm on Yelp that Hassell claimed to be defamatory. Hassell sued Bird and ended up with a default judgment agreeing that it was defamatory. Hassell also got the trial court in San Francisco to issue an injunction ordering Yelp to delete the offending posts. Yelp appealed the injunction on several grounds, including that it never had a chance to be heard by the court before it issued a judgment against it, and because Section 230 should have barred it. After losing at the California Court of Appeals, the California Supreme Court agreed to take up its case, and this week it issued its ruling.

The plurality opinion, which garnered three votes, found it sufficient to invalidate the injunction entirely on Section 230 grounds without having to reach any due process consideration. It cited plenty of prior cases to support its Section 230 analysis, but spent some time discussing the holdings in three in particular: Zeran v. AOL, Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, and Barrett v. Rosenthal [p. 14-20]. Zeran was an early case construing Section 230 that set forth why it was so important for speech and ecommerce that platforms have this statutory protection for liability arising from their users' content. Barrett v. Rosenthal was a subsequent California Supreme Court case, which similarly construed it. And Kathleen R. was a case where a California Court found that Section 230 precluded injunction relief. These and other cases underpinned the plurality's opinion.

It also made several other points in support of its Section 230 finding. One was the observation that if Section 230 couldn't prevent the non-party injunction against Yelp it would just prompt litigants to game the system by not even bothering trying to name platforms as defendants, since they'd have better luck getting injunctions against them if they did NOT try to sue them than if they did.

The question here is whether a different result should obtain because plaintiffs made the tactical decision not to name Yelp as a defendant. Put another way, we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly. We believe the answer is no. [p. 22]

And part of the reason the answer is no, is that Section 230 was never intended to only limit damages liability against a platform; it also was meant to prevent injunctions as well. [p. 26-27].

An injunction like the removal order plaintiffs obtained can impose substantial burdens on an Internet intermediary. Even if it would be mechanically simple to implement such an order, compliance still could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform. (See Noah v. AOL Time Warner, Inc., supra, 261 F.Supp.2d at p. 540 [“in some circumstances injunctive relief will be at least as burdensome to the service provider as damages, and is typically more intrusive”].) Furthermore, as this case illustrates, a seemingly straightforward removal order can generate substantial litigation over matters such as its validity or scope, or the manner in which it is implemented. (See Barrett, supra, 40 Cal.4th at p. 57.) Section 230 allows these litigation burdens to be imposed upon the originators of online speech. But the unique position of Internet intermediaries convinced Congress to spare republishers of online content, in a situation such as the one here, from this sort of ongoing entanglement with the courts. [p. 28]

And it had to prevent injunctions, in order for platforms and the online speech they facilitate to be protected:

Perhaps the dissenters’ greatest error is that they fail to fully grasp how plaintiffs’ maneuver, if accepted, could subvert a statutory scheme intended to promote online discourse and industry self-regulation. What plaintiffs did in attempting to deprive Yelp of immunity was creative, but it was not difficult. If plaintiffs’ approach were recognized as legitimate, in the future other plaintiffs could be expected to file lawsuits pressing a broad array of demands for injunctive relief against compliant or default-prone original sources of allegedly tortious online content. Injunctions entered incident to the entry of judgments in these cases then would be interposed against providers or users of interactive computer services who could not be sued directly, due to section 230 immunity. As evinced by the injunction sought in Kathleen R., supra, 87 Cal.App.4th 684, which demanded nothing less than control over what local library patrons could view on the Internet (id., at p. 691), the extension of injunctions to these otherwise immunized nonparties would be particularly conducive to stifling, skewing, or otherwise manipulating online discourse — and in ways that go far beyond the deletion of libelous material from the Internet. Congress did not intend this result, any more than it intended that Internet intermediaries be bankrupted by damages imposed through lawsuits attacking what are, at their core, only decisions regarding the publication of third party content. [p. 30-21]

Unfortunately the rest of the Court was not as amenable to the plurality's application of Section 230 as a defense against the injunction. Even the concurrence by Justice Kruger, which provided the fourth vote in favor of overturning the injunction, did so, as Eric Goldman observed, with potentially some qualification of the Section 230 analysis ("I express no view on how section 230 might apply to a different request for injunctive relief based on different justifications."). [concurrence p.1]. But both the concurrence and the plurality recognized that there were problems with trying to hold a non-party platform like Yelp responsible for complying with the injunction to take down content that had also been directed to the defendant Bird. For the plurality it was a straightforward violation of Section 230.

[I]t is also true that as a general rule, when an injunction has been obtained, certain nonparties may be required to comply with its terms. But this principle does not supplant the inquiry that section 230(c)(1) requires. Parties and nonparties alike may have the responsibility to comply with court orders, including injunctions. But an order that treats an Internet intermediary “as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” nevertheless falls within the parameters of section 230(c)(1). In substance, Yelp is being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews. Despite plaintiffs’ generic description of the obligation they would impose on Yelp, in this case this duty is squarely derived from “the mere existence of the very relationship that Congress immunized from suit.” [p. 24]

For the concurrence the platform's relationship with the defendant was too attenuated and not the sort of agency relationship where it may be proper to hold a third party responsible for complying with an injunction on another.

Plaintiffs, as well as [dissenting] Justice Liu, argue that the injunction naming Yelp is valid because it merely makes explicit that Yelp, as an entity “through” whom Bird acts, is obligated to carry out the injunction on her behalf. But the trial court made no finding that Bird acts, or has ever acted, “through” Yelp in the sense relevant under Berger, nor does the record contain any such indication; we have no facts before us to suggest that Yelp is Bird’s “agent” or “servant.” It is true and undisputed, as plaintiffs and Justice Liu emphasize, that Bird’s statements were posted on Yelp’s website with Yelp’s permission. And as a practical matter, Yelp has the technological ability to remove the reviews from the site. These facts might well add up (at least absent section 230) to a good argument for filing suit against Yelp and seeking an injunctive remedy in the ordinary course of litigation. But the question presented here is whether these facts establish the sort of legal identity between Bird and Yelp that would justify binding Yelp, as a nonparty, to the outcome of litigation in which it had no meaningful opportunity to participate. Without more, I do not see how they could. [concurrence p. 7]

The plurality also rejected the theory raised by the trial court and pushed by the dissent that the platform had somehow "aided and abetted" the defamatory speech. If this argument could prevail, Section 230 would become a nullity, since every platform enables user expression, and not all that expression is necessarily entirely legal.

In his dissent, Justice Cuéllar argues that even if the injunction cannot on its face command Yelp to remove the reviews, the removal order nevertheless could run to Yelp through Bird under an aiding and abetting theory premised on conduct that remains inherently that of a publisher. (See dis. opn. of Cuéllar, J., post, at pp. 3, 20-22, 34-37.) We disagree. As applied to such behavior, Justice Cuéllar’s approach would simply substitute one end-run around section 230 immunity for another. [p. 25]

The dissenting opinions, on the other hand, were very focused on the plight of the plaintiff who had apparently been injured by these purportedly defamatory posts. (I say "purportedly," because although the Supreme Court decision does not spend much time on this issue, it's worth noting that the conclusion of the posts' defamatory nature was drawn from an ex parte default proceeding at the trial court where no defense was supplied. It is certainly easier for a court to accept a plaintiff's characterization of language as defamatory when there is no one present – even Yelp was left out – to show that it is not.) As we've seen in cases like Garcia v. Google, the operation of Section 230 can make it difficult for a legitimately aggrieved plaintiff to obtain a remedy against someone who has defamed them. But it isn't necessarily impossible, and the plurality reminded everyone that Hassell was not without any recourse:

On this last point, we observe that plaintiffs still have powerful, if uninvoked, remedies available to them. Our decision today leaves plaintiffs’ judgment intact insofar as it imposes obligations on Bird. Even though neither plaintiffs nor Bird can force Yelp to remove the challenged reviews, the judgment requires Bird to undertake, at a minimum, reasonable efforts to secure the removal of her posts. A failure to comply with a lawful court order is a form of civil contempt (Code Civ. Proc., §1209, subd. (a)(5)), the consequences of which can include imprisonment (see In re Young (1995) 9 Cal.4th 1052, 1054). Much of the dissents’ rhetoric regarding the perceived injustice of today’s decision assumes that plaintiffs’ remaining remedies will be ineffective. One might more readily conclude that the prospect of contempt sanctions would resonate with a party who, although not appearing below, has now taken the step of filing an amicus curiae brief with this court. [p. 32]

Perhaps this is the most important passage in the whole opinion. It's become really popular especially as of late to try to make platforms responsible for everything their users do. It's good to have courts remind us that it's the people who do the things who really should be held accountable instead.

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Filed Under: california, cda 230, dawn hassell, defamation, free speech, injunctions, section 230
Companies: yelp

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    John Smith, 4 Jul 2018 @ 5:41am

    Section 230 undermines truth, ruins reputations, and costs money to the government. It also makes libel a fact of life for too many, with most of the damage inflicted by the search engines. The "polluter" in this case is the search engine, which can be weaponized to build a completely fake "dossier" on someone.

    The mass-shooter at the Capital Gazette got a woman fired by lying about her to her employer, btw.

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