Jim Porter: Fraudulent Yelp posting protected under the law, ridiculous
You are all familiar with Yelp. Individuals with Yelp accounts offer reviews for ratings, which can be done anonymously.
You would think if someone posts a patently misleading, mistaken and even totally wrong review on Yelp, Yelp would pull it or print a correction. You would think.
‘STEER CLEAR OF THIS LAW FIRM!’
Yelp user “Birdzeye B” from Los Angeles posted a very negative one-star review about a southern California law firm. Afterwards an equally over-the-top inaccurate posting was made by Birdzeye, later identified as Ava Bird.
The maligned lawyer sued Bird for liability, obtaining a default judgment for over a half million dollars. The trial court ordered Yelp to remove Ava Bird’s “Birdzeye B” postings. Yelp refused to do so. In fact, Yelp sued the wrongfully maligned lawyer.
YELP DEFENSE OF LAWSUIT
Yelp’s primary defense was that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gave it immunity. That Act in part reads: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider …”
Yelp claimed it was merely a conduit; a place to post other’s comments, Ava Bird was “the publisher or speaker.” How convenient.
The trial court ruled against Yelp as did the Court of Appeal. Yelp appealed to the California Supreme Court.
CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT
The Supreme Court analyzed court cases interpreting the Communications Decency Act writing: “The immunity provisions within section 230 have been widely and consistently interpreted to grant broad immunity against defamation liability for those who use the Internet to publish information that originated from another source.”
The Supreme Court concluded Yelp is a provider or user of an interactive computer service and the reviews were provided by another person — Ava Bird. No Yelp liability. The Supreme Court at least had the common sense (or guilt) to express reservations about Yelp’s posting defamatory statements, writing: “The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the internet has disturbing implications.” Oh really.
Under the name of free speech, Yelp prevails allowing it to republish offensive and fraudulent material with immunity.
Several justices dissented writing in part: “We conclude instead, section 230 (of the Communications Decency Act) does not endow an interactive service provider (Yelp) with absolute immunity from complying with a court order that includes injunctive relief simply because [Yelp] functions as a publisher.”
I wrote a Law Review in 2013 ranting against internet ranters. I concluded with this: “The lesson here is when you are ranting away under a pseudonym or your name, make your point but rant crazy-style like an illiterate madman who should not be taken seriously. That should get you out of any defamation lawsuit. It has come to that. It is a crazy, crazy world, and the crazier you are, the nastier you can be – with impunity.”
Of course, Trump wasn’t around in 2013, but rereading the last line of my 2013 column, he certainly comes to mind.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org