California court rules Yelp can’t be forced to remove bad reviews

4 Jul 2018

Yelp open on a mobile device. Image: BigTunaOnline/Shutterstock

Review site Yelp is not obliged to remove reviews from a business’s page by legal means.

Local business reviews hub Yelp emerged victorious on 2 July following a ruling in its favour by the California Superior Court. In a 4-3 opinion, the court said that the firm was not required to remove negative comments posted by its users.

Forced removal of reviews would impose burdens on companies

Chief justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said that forcing a site to remove user-generated content “can impose substantial burdens” on a digital firm. She added: “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.”

According to The New York Times, the court overturned an earlier decision where a lower court ordered Yelp to remove an allegedly defamatory review. In this case, Yelp was not a defendant and therefore not allowed to defend itself in the courtroom.

The Superior Court originally agreed to review the case in 2016 with the Northern California branch of the ACLU making a statement in support of Yelp.

A disgruntled client

The case ‘Hassell v. Bird’, centred around a San Francisco-based legal firm suing an unhappy client for posting falsely negative reviews on its company page. Lawyer Dawn Hassell sued her former client, Ava Bird, for allegedly defaming her and her practice in two Yelp reviews.

Bird is still legally obliged to remove the offending reviews and must also pay damages to the law firm.

Aaron Schur, deputy general counsel for Yelp, said: “With this decision, online publishers in California can be assured that they cannot be lawfully forced to remove third-party speech through enterprising abuses of the legal system, and those of us that use such platforms to express ourselves cannot be easily silenced through such tactics either.”

Schur and the Yelp legal team had said the reviews posted by Bird could not be considered libellous.

Hassell is considering lodging an appeal with the US Supreme Court.

Yelp open on a mobile device. Image: BigTunaOnline/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects