The California Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Yelp, the local search and reviews site, did not need to remove negative comments posted by a user, in a case closely watched by the industry for its implications for online free speech.
In a 4-to-3 opinion, the court said that federal law protected internet companies from liability for statements written by others. The decision to remove posts is at the company’s discretion, the court said.
Forcing a site to remove user-generated posts “can impose substantial burdens” on the online company, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the majority opinion. “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.”
The role of moderating speech on online platforms has become a hotly contested topic, as the reach and influence of companies like Facebook and Google have grown. But the companies have long argued that the companies are not liable for posts published by others on their platform.
The case concerned a San Francisco lawyer, Dawn Hassell, who had accused a client of posting defamatory statements against her on Yelp. A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled that the posts were defamatory and instructed the client to take them down.
When the client did not remove the posts, Ms. Hassell successfully sought a court order for Yelp to remove them. The order was upheld by both a second judge and a state appeals court.
Yelp argued that the lower court decisions could provide a legal pathway for businesses seeking to have negative posts removed. The company also referred to the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 federal law that protects internet companies from liability for third party users’ posts.
The act, the ruling said, is meant “to promote the free exchange of information and ideas over the internet and to encourage voluntary monitoring for offensive or obscene material.”
Yelp was joined by civil liberties groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The A.C.L.U. filed an amicus brief in the Yelp case in 2016, arguing that the removal order “requires Yelp to remove speech from its website without giving it any opportunity to argue that the speech in question is constitutionally protected.”
However, opponents argued that this free speech approach could prevent victims of online abuse from seeking a legal remedy.
Ms. Hassell’s lawyer, Monique Olivier, said in a statement to The Associated Press that the ruling “stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence” and that Ms. Hassell was considering an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Dissenting justices argued that because Yelp was inviting its users to post and read reviews, the company could be held complicit in users’ refusal to remove posts.
“The internet has the potential not only to enlighten but to spread lies, amplifying defamatory communications to an extent unmatched in our history,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote.
Aaron Schur, a lawyer for Yelp, said that the company examined the reviews about Ms. Hassell’s business and did not find them to be libelous.
He also said in a statement on Yelp’s website that the Court of Appeals’s reasoning put at risk journalists’ use of quotes or information from other individuals.
“Also at risk are the separate speech rights of individuals that use online resources,” Mr. Schur said, “such as those that post comments on news articles or consumers who choose to describe their business experiences online, which may be squelched through manipulations of our judicial system.”