Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird

Last week, on July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court of California overturned rulings that arguably threatened the ability for online platform users to share their thoughts and opinions freely by ruling in favor of Yelp in the hotly contested and widely watched Hassell v. Bird case.

For those that aren’t familiar with the underlying facts, I offer the following quick background:

In 2014 a dispute arose between California attorney, Dawn Hassell and her former client, Ava Bird when Bird posted a negative review of Hassell on the popular business review site, Yelp.  Hassell claimed that the content of the post was, among other things, defamatory and commenced an action against Bird for the same in the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco, Case No. CGC-13-530525. Bird failed to appear, and the Court entered a default order in favor of Hassell.  There is question as to whether Bird was actually served.  In addition, the court ordered Yelp, a non-party to the case who did not receive notice of the hearing, to remove reviews purportedly associated with Bird without explanation and enjoined Yelp from publishing any reviews from the suspected Bird accounts in the future.  Yelp challenged this order, but the court upheld its ruling.

Hoping for relief, Yelp appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, Case No. A143233. Unfortunately for Yelp, the Appellate Court offered no relief and held that: Yelp was not aggrieved by the judgment; the default judgment which including language requesting non-party Yelp to remove the reviews from the website was proper; that Yelp had no constitutional right to notice and hearing on the trial court’s order to remove the reviews from the website; that the order to remove the reviews from Yelp and to prohibit publication of future reviews was not an improper or overly broad prior restraint; and that the Communications Decency Act (“CDA” or “Section 230”) did not bar the trial court’s order to remove the reviews.

The Appellate Court’s ruling was clearly contrary to precedent in California and elsewhere around the country. Yelp appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court, Case No. S235968, to “protect its First Amendment right as a publisher, due process right to a hearing in connection with any order that targets speech on Yelp’s website, and to preserve the integrity of the CDA” according to the blog post written by Aaron Schur, Yelp’s Deputy General Counsel. While Yelp led the charge, they were not left to fight alone.

The internet rallied in support of Yelp.  Dozens of search engines, platforms, non-profit organizations and individuals who value the free sharing of information and ideas contributed amicus letters and amicus briefs (I co-authored an amicus brief for this case) in support of Yelp, including assistance from those like UCLA Law Professor and Washington Post contributor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigator, Paul Alan Levy, whose work spotlighted the ease in which bogus court orders and default judgments are obtained for the sole purpose of getting search engines like Google to de-index content.  In case you are wondering, bogus court orders and false DMCA schemes are indeed a real problem that many online publishers face.

On April 3, 2018 the California Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case. On July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court released its 102 page opinion in a 3-1-3 decision (three on a plurality opinion, one swing concurring, and three dissenting via two opinions) holding that Hassell’s failure to name Yelp as a defendant, an end run-around tactic, did not preclude the application of CDA immunity.  The court clearly stated “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.” Based upon this win for the Internet, at least for now, online publishers in California (or those who have had this case thrown at them in demand letters or pleadings since the original trial and appellate court rulings) can breathe a sigh of relief that they cannot be forced to remove third-party content.

Aaron Shur made an important statement in concluding the Yelp blog post “…litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtroom 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.”  It’s important in both our professional and personal life to not get stuck staring at one tree when there is a whole forest of beauty around us.

While this is indeed a win, and returns the law back to status quo in California, it does raise some concern for some that certain comments in the opinion are signaling Congress to modify Section 230, again (referring to the recent enactment of FOSTA).  Santa Clara Law Professor, Eric Goldman broke down the Court’s lengthy opinion (a good read if you don’t want to spend the time to review the full opinion) while pointing out that “fractured opinions raise some doubts about the true holding of [the] case.”  The big question is where will things go from here?  Indeed, only time will tell.

Citation: Hassell v. Bird, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018)

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From the #MoronFiles | Can’t Read or Lazy as F*ck?

PRELUDE: 

Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that I see all kinds of crazy stuff in my line of work. Some of the things that come across my desk make me frustrated with society and you probably know that I blog about Fighting Fair on the Internet because of the things that I see.  In addition, sometimes the things that I see that frustrate me include others that are part of my profession. Like any profession, there are certain shit bags (okay, maybe they aren’t all shit bags…just most of them) out there that give us lawyers a bad reputation and quite frankly, it pisses me off.

Some things that I see warrant a full blog article – so I write those.  Others just warrant a short mention because I find the conduct both outrageous AND funny.  I’ve decided to start a collection of true stories, with some identifying facts modified so I don’t have to deal with the psychos, and will be continually adding more of those to the #MORONFILES for your reading pleasure:

07/09/2018 #MORONFILES ENTRY:

Today, maybe I’m a bit fired up.  It’s hot as hell here in sunny Phoenix, Arizona and maybe that’s starting to aggitate me a little more than ususal.  Nevertheless, I have another #MoronFiles entry for you today.

I see a lot of demand letters on behalf of my clients; a product of respresenting different websites. The standard process is: I get a wholly ridiculous demand letter, often written by some pro-per guy (which I totally give leeway to) or attorney that doesn’t practice in the internet space, let alone the niche that revolves around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (a “dabbler” if you will); I respond with a TRUCK LOAD of on point law – from federal statues to federal and state case law around the country (often including law in said dabbler’s jurisdiction too) explaining why their demand is without merit (aka, total garbage).  Most of the time that works because smart people or counsel will take time to read the law and come back days later trying to work out an agreement or will otherwise find an alternative path that doesn’t involve my client.  I don’t charge them for providing this free legal education that, in my opinion, (especially if they are an attorney) they should have researched before they sent said dumpster fire of a meritless demand letter.  No big deal – I like educating people.  When the tide rises – so do all the boats, right?

This was not the experience today.  Instead, I get dumpster fire demand letter from a dabbler (I looked counsel up – NOT internet law at all – as in, as far from that as one can get) and from one of my “problem child” states (yes, certain counsel from certain states tend to suck at life more than others); I send the lengthy, but relatively PC “your demand is garbage” with all the case law; and…30 minutes later…I got a response back that said something along the lines of “I disagree with your legal analysis.”  Um, first of all, there is no way in hell you read all that case law in 30 minutes; and second, if you did read it (not possible) a response of “I disagree with your legal analysis” suggests to me that you have a reading comprehension issue. So, you can’t read or you are lazy as f*ck?  Which is it?  My guess? Lazy. As. F*ck.

The additional posturing in the response back suggests to me that this is yet another dabbler who doesn’t give two shits about his/her client and is willing to file meritless legal action, to line his/her pocket with money, with no probable benefit to the client.  Assuming that the court acts in the same manner as all the other cases in this jurisdiction that my clients and others similarly situated have dealt with, and elsewhere around the country, the action will be dismissed right away with ZERO benefit to the client.

I fricken HATE attorneys like that…and this is why this person made the #MoronFiles.  Remember, not all attorneys are created equal.  Some of us actually give a crap and will do the appropriate reasearch ahead of time instead of making you look bad or making your situation worse.