Yelp Can't Be Forced to Remove Defamatory Reviews, Court Says

(Bloomberg) -- Yelp Inc. can’t be forced by a state judge to remove a defamatory review of a law firm from its website, the California Supreme Court said.

The state’s top court agreed with the online review platform in a split decision Monday that it’s shielded by the Communications Decency Act, the federal law that immunizes website operators from legal claims over users’ postings.

The majority overturned an appellate court’s ruling that San Francisco-based Yelp could be ordered to remove the review, even though the company itself wasn’t sued by the law firm over the unflattering opinion by a disgruntled client. The law firm had won a default judgment that the reviews should be taken down after its former client didn’t offer a defense against the defamation claims.

The law firm’s decision not to sue Yelp was a legal maneuver -- an individual user can’t claim protection from the Communications Decency Act -- that could subvert the law intended to promote online discourse and industry self-regulation, the judges said.

“What plaintiffs did in attempting to deprive Yelp of immunity was creative, but it was not difficult,” according to the decision Monday. If the gambit were recognized as legitimate, other plaintiffs could be expected to file suits seeking injunctive relief against sources of “allegedly tortious” online content.

The law firm’s legal remedies lie solely against the person who posted the review, not to Yelp itself, the judges wrote.

The case is Hassell v Bird, S235968, California Supreme Court.

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