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Are Negative Reviews Protected on Sites Like Yelp?

A court decision that required Yelp to remove negative reviews posted about an attorney could eventually reach a resolution in California. Many big name online players spoke out in favor of Yelp as they perceive the court decision to run counter to the First Amendment as well as of the Section 230Community Decency Act of 1996, and according to Eric Goldman, the California Supreme Court has the opportunity to hear Yelp’s appeal of an appellate decision in Hassell v. Bird.

In the latest decision from the appellate court in California’s Division Four regarding Hassell v. Bird, Yelp was denied their request to vacate the earlier judgment requiring the takedown of the negative reviews in question. With the case happening in California, the epicenter of the technology industry, the decision attracted the notice of big names like Google, Facebook, and dozens of media organizations.

According to Goldman’s posting, Hassell feels there’s no ground left to cover because of the earlier court finding that the negative reviews in question were defamatory. Hassell further asserted this decision won’t lead to other internet users using it to make “unsavory content” go away.

In response to that, Goldman posted some examples of default judgments being used in questionable litigation already. One example alleges a Georgia dentist filed a fraudulent lawsuit in order to get negative online reviews of his practice removed.

As noted earlier, Yelp has plenty of supporters in its appeal. Goldman listed the variety of amicus letters filed from not only Google and Facebook but organizations like the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Wikimedia. Those were joined by others like online company review site Glassdoor, where employees can leave detailed and not necessarily positive descriptions of their former or current employers.

“Since Hassell was published, we have begun receiving demand letters citing the opinion as grounds for demanding that Glassdoor remove content and reviews deemed objectionable,” the Glassdoor letter read. “We are deeply concerned that unscrupulous employers unhappy with honest, negative employee opinions about them in Glassdoor reviews will take guidance from Hassell and seek to gain default judgments and then use the threat of contempt proceedings to force us to remove content in violation of First Amendment rights and Section 230 immunity.”

The controversial Ripoff Report also contributed an amicus letter. That site claimed “in the short time since Hassell was decided, (Ripoff Report owner) Xcentric (which is based in Arizona) has received numerous demands from California attorneys citing Hassell and demanding removal of content on that basis.”

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David A Utter
David A Utter
David A. Utter is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. He has covered technology topics from search to security to online business and has been quoted in places like ZDNet and BusinessWeek. He considers his appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered" with long-time host Robert Siegel a delightful highlight. You can find him on Twitter @davidautter and on LinkedIn.