The Communications Decency Act (CDA) is a federal law that protects online publishers from liability for the speech of others. The CDA gives online platforms the right to publish (or decline to publish) the ideas and opinions of users without the threat of being held liable for that content or forced to remove it.
However, people who are defamed online will sometimes go to extreme lengths to try to force online publishers to remove defamatory content posted by users. A notable First Circuit case that I wrote about recently illustrates how a lawyer attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain copyright ownership of several defamatory posts and then force Ripoff Report to remove the posts. (See: The Copyright Workaround and Reputation Management: Small Justice v. Ripoff Report).
A California attorney tried something similar in Hassell v. Bird, a case decided by the California Supreme Court on July 2, 2018. In that case a lawyer (Dawn Hassell) sued a former client and the author of a Yelp review (Ava Bird) over a review that Hassell claimed was defamatory. Hassell got a default judgment holding that the review was defamatory along with an injunction ordering the review to be removed. She then delivered the injunction to Yelp (which was not a party in the suit) and demanded that it honor the injunction against Bird and remove the review. Yelp refused to do so. The case proceeded through appeals, ending up before the California Supreme Court.
The attorney’s strategy in this case was to purposefully not name Yelp as a defendant, since Yelp would easily have been dismissed from the case under the CDA. Instead, her strategy was to get an injunction against the defendant ordering her to remove the Yelp post, and then attempt to enforce that injunction against Yelp. Ava Bird assisted in the first part of this strategy by defaulting, although it appears she may not have been properly served.
The court addressed Hassell’s strategy, and answered the central issue in the case, as follows:
The question here is whether a different result should obtain because plaintiffs made the tactical decision not to name Yelp as a defendant. Put another way, we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly. We believe the answer is no . . . an order that treats an Internet intermediary ‘as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider’ nevertheless falls within the parameters of [the CDA].
The court observed that even an injunction (as opposed to money damages) can impose a substantial burden on an online publisher:
An injunction like the removal order plaintiffs obtained can impose substantial burdens on an Internet intermediary. 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 . . . furthermore, as this case illustrates, a seemingly straightforward removal order can generate substantial litigation over matters such as its validity or scope, or the manner in which it is implemented. The CDA allows these litigation burdens to be imposed upon the originators of online speech. But the unique position of Internet intermediaries convinced Congress to spare republishers of online content, in a situation such as the one here, from this sort of ongoing entanglement with the courts.
The court criticized Hassell’s strategy:
. . . plaintiffs’ maneuver, if accepted, could subvert a statutory scheme intended to promote online discourse and industry self-regulation. What plaintiffs did in attempting to deprive Yelp of immunity was creative, but it was not difficult. If plaintiffs’ approach were recognized as legitimate, in the future other plaintiffs could be expected to file lawsuits pressing a broad array of demands for injunctive relief against compliant or default-prone original sources of allegedly tortious online content. . . . Congress did not intend this result, any more than it intended that Internet intermediaries be bankrupted by damages imposed through lawsuits attacking what are, at their core, only decisions regarding the publication of third party content.
Yelp itself had the last laugh in this case, and it posted it on its blog:
The Hassell Law Group, which has always been a highly-rated business on Yelp and currently maintains five stars, has spent many years in the court system (and endured the resulting Streisand Effect) in an effort to force Yelp to silence a pair of outlier reviews. As we have observed before, litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtrooms and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most — those of its clients.
There is a lot more to this case than I’ve covered here. If you are interested, I recommend Eric Goldman’s analysis of the nuanced concurring and dissenting opinions in his post, The California Supreme Court Didn’t Ruin Section 230 (Today)–Hassell v. Bird.