December 3, 2018
The California Supreme Court’s opinion in Hassell v. Bird, a landmark decision addressing the regulation of speech on the internet, aligns with the theme of an amicus brief submitted by Horvitz & Levy.
The case began when the Hassell Law Group obtained a default judgment against Bird for defamatory reviews Bird allegedly posted about the firm on Yelp. The trial court then ordered Yelp to remove the reviews even though Yelp was not named a party to the action. Yelp filed a motion to vacate the injunction on the basis it was immune from liability under 47 U.S.C. § 230, which immunizes internet service providers from liability for third party content. The trial court denied the motion, finding that although Yelp was a nonparty, it had acted as an aider and abettor of Bird’s conduct thus permitting the injunction against Yelp as a nonparty. The Court of Appeal affirmed and the Supreme Court granted review to address whether the trial court had authority to enforce the injunction against Yelp.
Horvitz & Levy LLP filed an amicus brief in support of Yelp on behalf of the ACLU of North California, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, ACLU of Southern California, Avvo, California Anti-SLAPP Project, Electronic Frontier Foundation, First Amendment Coalition, and Public Participation Project. Horvitz & Levy’s brief argued that the injunction frustrated the purpose of section 230, which was intended to immunize internet content providers from lawsuits challenging postings made by third parties.
In a 4-3 decision, the California Supreme Court reversed, holding that the injunction inherently treated Yelp as a publisher and was therefore barred by section 230. The Court recognized that to hold otherwise would result in creative pleading around section 230, contrary to Congressional intent to broadly immunize internet service providers from liability for third party speech.