The Supreme Court of the United States Denies Petition to Review the California Supreme Court’s Decision in Hassell v. Bird

Another win for Section 230 advocates. Back in July I wrote a blog post entitled “Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird” which outlined the hotly contested, and widely watched, case that started back in 2014. When I wrote that post I left off saying that “the big question is where will things go from [there].” After all, we have seen, and continue to see, Section 230 come under attack for a host of arguably noble, yet not clearly thought through, reasons including sex-trafficking (resulting in FOSTA).

Many of us practitioners weren’t sure Hassell, after losing her case before the California Supreme Court as it pertained to Yelp, Inc., would actually appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was based upon the fact that: there has been a long line of cases across the country that have held that 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) bars injunctive relief and other forms of liability against Internet publishers for third-party speech; that the U.S. Supreme Court denied another similar petition in not so distant past; and held many years prior, in Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U.S. 100 (1969) that “[o]ne is not bound by a judgment in personam resulting from litigation in which he is not designated as a party or to which he has not been been made a party by service of process.”  

Clearly undeterred, in October of 2018 Hassell filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari and accompanying Appendix, challenging the California Supreme Court’s ruling, with the U.S. Supreme Court. Respondent, Yelp, Inc. filed its Opposition to the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in December of 2018. Hassell’s Reply in Support of the Petition was filed earlier this month and all the materials were distributed to the Justices to be discussed at the conference scheduled to be held on Friday, January 18, 2019. [I suppose it is good to see that the government shutdown didn’t kick this matter down the road.]

Many of us Section 230 advocates were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would surprise us by granting the Petition. Nevertheless, based upon today’s decision denying Hassell’s Petition it appears that this matter will, if ever, be reserved for another day and all is status quo with Section 230, for now.

Citations: Hassell v. Bird, 420 P.3d 776, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018), cert. denied; Hassell v. Yelp, 2019 WL 271967 (U.S. Jan. 22, 2019)(No. 18- 506)

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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)

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 10 | That Would be Harsher Punishment for Internet Defamers Stan…

For many reasons the movie Ms. Congeniality with Sandra Bullock has been a long time favorite of mine.   Especially when she answered the question “What is one of the most important thing our society needs?” with “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators Stan…and world peace!”  I’m pretty sure since that movie first came out in 2000 I have been remixing that one-liner to fit my varying smarty pants comeback needs.  In fact, in muddling to myself just this morning after reviewing some dyspeptic online commentary I determined that I would answer the question “That would be harsher punishment for internet defamers Stan…and world peace!”  It’s true…internet defamers and harassers really do suck.

In my line of work, and in my every day life, I see people being nasty to one another online – and sometimes people really cross the line and forget that words do hurt.  Sometimes I wonder what happened to the good old fashioned “take it out behind the barn and duke it out…looser buys the other guy a drink” form of justice.  Back in the day (and I really hate saying that because I am not THAT old) if anyone ran their mouth in person like they do today online – man, they’d get a beat down and, quite honestly, they would have probably deserved it.  To make matters worse, you get the morons that jump on the keyboard warrior band wagon without having the first clue about what is REALLY going on and they either share the crap out of the false stuff or otherwise join in on the bashing.  When is enough, enough?  What the hell happened to the human connection and manners?  So much of society needs a good metaphorical kick in the teeth.  The First Amendment doesn’t shelter you from false and defamatory statements nor should it be abused as a license to be a jerk-face.  Unfortunately, unlike the “old days,”  it no longer hurts to be stupid and run your mouth.

Indeed I am a Section 230 Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) supporter, because I don’t think that websites should be held liable for the stupid crap that other people do; after all, that mentality is akin to an over weight person blaming the spoon manufacturer for making a spoon that they can use to eat and get fat with.  “…but, but, the spoon made me fat!”  And to those who just read that and got all defensive – clearly my reference isn’t to those who have medical issues or things outside of their control.  I’m talking about the person who is heavy because of purposeful overeating, failing to do exercises, etc.  Sometimes life happens.  We get busy and fail to take care of ourselves as we should but we can’t blame the spoon manufacturer for it.  The spoon didn’t make us fat.  We have no one to blame but ourselves.  This is absolutely no different and trying to hold websites liable for the stupidity of third-parties is asinine to me.  Yes, yes, I am well aware that the CDA protects websites from liability from third-party content, however, it doesn’t seem to stop people and attorneys from filing frivolous lawsuits…but I digress here.  That is another story for another day.  However, I do think that there should be some serious punishment for all these people who purposefully go out of their way to post false and defamatory information about others…the same goes for harassers.  Perhaps if these people got hit harder in the pocket book or were forced into doing community service – like helping with anti-bullying and harassment initiatives, maybe THEN it would slow down. There just needs to be more education and more deterrents.  It’s far too easy to sit behind the keyboard and be mean.  MEAN. PEOPLE. SUCK.

Until next time friends…

 

 

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet: Part 1 | The Internet Sucks!

Okay, so I know that the title “The Internet Sucks!” is rather harsh, but lately that is how I feel.  There was once a time where the internet was used as an actual tool and not a weapon.  I recognize that to a great degree it still a tool because we can share thoughts, ideas, and solid information and we are all the wiser for it.  No longer do we have to go to the library to look things up or wait a year for something to be published.  Now, everything is at our fingertips within seconds and from an educational perspective, this is an awesome thing!  Even from the perspective of being able to share meaningful thoughts and ideas in a collaborative environment makes the internet awesome, especially when it is used for good and positive.  Of course it has also helped us reconnect and stay connected with friends and family who live across the globe…and for me I am thankful to have such opportunity.  Yes, there are countless reasons why the internet is still good – but that’s not what I am talking about – otherwise this would be a short posting about puppies, baby goats, and kittens.  What I am referring to is the other side of that coin…

As I scroll through all of the social media pages that are out there, reading the different postings regarding…well, just about anything someone happens to write about, I find myself being ever thankful that I grew up in a time when the internet wasn’t so poplar.  It seems that the information highways has become the “misinformation highway” and so many have become quick to believe and consequently “like” and “share” just about anything that is posted…no matter how ridiculous it would seem to anyone who actually stopped and thought about what they were reading for a minute.  Mainstream media wants so badly to draw attention that they will highlight situations that really shouldn’t be highlighted, and then often skew them, because it does nothing more than “stir the pot” and generate ratings.  I have often said those that “stir the post” should have to lick the spoon.  Top that off with the keyboard warriors of today who seem to thrive on being malicious turds and you come to realize that the internet has really become a hostile environment and people are legitimately suffering from it in many different forms.  Someone can’t even post a picture of a puppy without someone saying “that is the ugliest puppy I have ever seen” and go on to get into it with someone else over that comment.  who gives a crap if you think the puppy is ugly?  Why does your opinion on that matter?   Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the freedom of speech (and as a lawyer in my line of work I help advocate for it), however, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that you should push the boundaries just to say you could do it!  Freedom of speech shouldn’t be used as a license to be a dick!  At what point did people bypass the Golden Rule?  Further, and on point, not everything that you say (or write) is protected speech…but so many people forget that or have apparently never been taught that lesson in school.  In my best Mr. Mackey voice from South Park “Bullying is bad…mmmmkay.  Harassing someone is bad…mmmmkay.  Lying and making up stories is bad…mmmmkay. Sure there are exceptions – satire and the like…and that seems all pretty self explanatory to me…but perhaps what I consider common sense isn’t so common?

While the shift has been going on for some time it has only been in the last five years that I have really noticed the change.  Perhaps because I now deal with on a daily basis whether it be for work or I have it thrown in my face every time I read any thread, on any post, on pretty much any topic.  True, I could not read…but the inquisitive social scientist mind I have won’t allow me to simply just dismiss it.  As I see it, there seems to be a drastic increase of people who literally take offense to everything.  At the same time there is an equally drastic increase of people who think being a keyboard warrior troll is somehow productive and funny; and somewhere in the gap between the two extremes are those who can find a bit of humor in some good old fashioned ribbing but know when things have gone too far and won’t engage in those activities.  You know they types that I am I am talking about.  I'm just here for the commentsThey are the ones who literally post the “I’m just here for the comments” meme to a thread to show some level of participation without taking a side…  Why is that?  How has all of this come to be?  Why does everyone want websites that allow third-party content to be the “moral police”?  Even if sites were to start being the “moral police” where does one draw the line in the sand?  Shouldn’t society, as a whole, have a duty to raise awareness and police their own conduct?  Is it a fruitless endeavor to try and get people to police their own conduct or do people generally desire to behave in a positive manner but are just lacking in some basic knowledge and tools for real dispute resolution in today’s technological world?  I mean, let’s face it…it’s not like many of us growing up had parents in this particular environment to draw upon for examples of how to handle these kinds of situations; heck, the game Oregon Trail was considered cool technology I was young let alone the internet.

Through this series of blogs under my self titled topic “Fighting Fair on the Internet” I will discuss my personal viewpoints on these questions in a balanced approach in hopes to help raise awareness on these issues; offer discussion points and/or, at least, some food for thought on the related issues; and provide some general legal commentary and tips for what I call “fighting fair on the internet” along the way.  Of course, while I have some level of education in the social sciences, I certainly do not claim to be an expert…but I am fascinated by human nature and it seems to be such a very relevant and current issue in which I have had some level of experience with.  Stick around friends…I anticipate this is going to be an interesting ride!

Cheers!

Anette