Commentary

Silicon Valley And Media Companies Back Yelp In Battle Over Negative Review

In April of 2013, California attorney Dawn Hassell sued a former client over a negative Yelp review.

The ex-client didn't appear in court to answer the defamation lawsuit, and Hassell was awarded a default judgment of more than $500,000. The trial judge also ordered the former client to remove her review.

But that wasn't all. The judge issued an extraordinary injunction directing Yelp to take down the post. Yelp says it had never been notified by Hassell about the lawsuit before that order was issued. After learning of the ruling, Yelp intervened in the case and sought to vacate the injunction.

Yelp raised numerous points, including that it has the right to appear in court and argue its case, before being ordered to take down comments.

The company's efforts were rejected by both a trial judge and a California appellate court. The online review company is now asking the California Supreme Court to take up the case.

"Yelp and other websites will suffer as a result of this opinion," Yelp writes in a petition seeking review. "More importantly, members of the public that rely on the wealth of online third-party commentary ... will be harmed as subjects of criticism follow Hassell’s example: intentionally sue the commenter alone, perhaps in a manner that maximizes the chance that he or she will be unable or unwilling to defend the lawsuit regardless of its underlying merit, and then after a default judgment present the injunction to the website publisher as an unassailable fait accompli."

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A host of outside companies and organizations -- including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press -- are supporting Yelp.

"In requiring Yelp to remove one of its user's comments without notice, the lower courts failed to provide Yelp, a distributor of online content, an opportunity to object," writes the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a letter on behalf of itself and dozens of other companies, including The New York Times, AOL, Buzzfeed and Gannett. "The decision is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court doctrine requiring an adversarial hearing before the government can ... demand removal of speech from the marketplace of ideas."

Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft add in a joint letter to the California Supreme Court that the trial judge's hearing in the case was "a procedural travesty," noting that Yelp had never been told that the judge "was even considering entering an injunction."

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has criticized the ruling, called attention to Yelp's appeal on his blog. "The volume and gravitas of the letters, plus the obvious and stupid mistakes in the appellate court opinion, should give Yelp’s request a good chance of being granted," he writes.

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