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Calif. Supreme Court says Yelp doesn't have to remove defamatory reviews

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A view of a Yelp sign on the front of the New York Stock Exchange following the company's initial public offering in New York City on March 2, 2012. On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled the company was not responsible for defamatory reviews and did not have to remove them. File Photo by Justin Lane/EPA

By Ray Downs, UPI

The California Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Yelp didn't have to remove reviews, even if they were found to be untrue and defamatory.

The 4-3 decision in Hassell v. Bird was considered a win for Yelp, which was not sued but was an objector and appellant on behalf of the defendant and lost the previous two cases in lower courts. Yelp argued that being forced to remove defamatory reviews could potentially undermine their status as a trusted site for public opinion about businesses.

The Court agreed and said Yelp was not responsible for the defamatory speech and couldn't be forced to remove it due to its protection under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states "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" and "No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section."

Aaron Schur, Yelp's Deputy General Counsel, praised the ruling.

"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," he said in a statement. "Of course, Yelp has no interest in publishing defamation, which is not helpful to consumers, and our Terms of Service prohibit the posting of defamatory content. But defamation is more than just a label, and so Yelp studies court orders to ensure they are valid and actually make a showing that defamation has occurred, before Yelp removes reviewer content."

The case goes back to 2013, when San Francisco attorney Dawn Hassell sued former client Ava Bird for defamation after Bird left a negative review of her firm on Yelp.

"After signing all the paperwork with her office, like a broken record, they repeated 'DO NOT TALK TO THE INSURANCE COMPANY' over and over and over," Bird wrote. "I honored that and did not speak to them. But the Hassell Law Group didn't ever speak with the insurance company either, neglecting their said responsibilities and not living up to their own legal contract! Nor did they bother to communicate with me, the client or the insurance company AT ALL."

Hassell sued Bird for defamation and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald Sullivan ruled in her favor after the firm proved they did communicate with the insurance company and Bird.

Sullivan also ordered Yelp to remove the review, which the site challenged, leading up to Monday's ruling.

But the case could go on.

"Hassell is considering all legal options, including review by the U.S. Supreme Court," her attorney, Monique Oliver, said in an emailed statement to CNET.

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