California Supreme Court May Allow The Censoring Of Consumers’ Online Reviews

Forums such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, provide consumers with the opportunity to voice their opinions by detailing their experiences as patrons of various restaurants and other local businesses.  The reviews of prior consumers can weigh heavily when potential consumers decide whether they want to support a particular business or not.

The use of social media to leave reviews creates a medium in which “word of mouth” can reach many more individuals who are in search of a specific product or service that can meet their needs.  The accessibility of these forums reaching vast numbers of consumers lead to both positive and negative effects.  For consumers, the ability to read about others’ good, bad, and neutral experiences can help them determine if the particular business is a right fit for them.  For business owners, both positive and negative reviews can indicate to a business what consumers appreciate and also what the business should be doing in order to improve its interactions with consumers.

However, one of the main problems with online reviews occurs when consumers share false negative reviews of a business.  Recently, California Courts have been presented with legal issues arising from the use of online forums, specifically, whether courts have the power to force any specific forum to take down a defamatory review.  Furthermore, courts must address whether any infringement on a consumer’s First Amendment right to free speech arises if a negative review is declared defamatory.

For instance, recently, a California law firm alleged that a past client fraudulently posted false negative Yelp reviews about her experience with their law firm.  Due to the influence of Yelp reviews on a businesses’ reputation, the law firm requested that the former client take down her negative reviews.  The former client refused and the law firm sued the former client for defamation in state court, seeking help from the courts in ensuring its name would not be tarnished.  This case between the law firm and its former client is Hassell v. Bird, and it has made its way all the way up to the California Supreme Court.

Currently, the California Supreme Court is deciding whether to let the Court of Appeals decision stand or whether the Court will issue its own decision.  On September 29, 2014, the Superior Court declared, which then on June 7, 2016 the Court of Appeals affirmed with an opinion written by Justice Ruvolo, that the reviews of the former client were indeed defamatory.  Although Yelp was not a party to the suit, the opinion ordered Yelp to step in to remove these negative false reviews.  The Court explained that since Yelp is an “administrator of the forum” where the negative reviews are found, Yelp is responsible for removing the defamatory speech.

The counsel for Yelp is optimistic that the California Supreme Court has decided to hear its case because it has given Yelp an opportunity to demonstrate how this decision will have an detrimental effect by “restrict[ing] the ability of websites to provide a balanced spectrum of views online.”  Yelp’s counsel and other community members argue that this judicial decision will restrict a consumers’ First Amendment right to free speech.  On the other hand, the law firm’s counsel, San Francisco lawyer Monique Olivier, strongly asserts that these false negative reviews, if considered defamatory, are not protected by the First Amendment, and therefore there is no infringement on a consumers’ right to free speech.  Presently, the California Supreme Court has not decided the matter and the parties in Hassell are awaiting a decision as to whether the higher court will hear their case.

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Main Issue Addressed by the Courts

The main issue presented before the California Supreme Court is whether an online publisher has a right to notice and the opportunity to be heard before a trial court orders removal of online content.

In Yelp’s Opening Brief on the Merits, Yelp argues that the Court of Appeals decision should be overturned mainly because the court did not provide Yelp with proper due process protections by not taking into account Supreme Court authority that requires notice and the opportunity to be heard when it relates to orders restraining the distribution of speech.  Yelp argues that the Court of Appeals decision was extremely flawed because they created an avenue for courts to easily apply injunctions to non-parties, even without any inquiry into factual accounts of misconduct.  Specifically, Yelp asserts that now anyone who seeks the judicial system to help provide relief to a case regarding defamation, can forum shop in California and “circumvent due process rights” in this state.

Yelp provides that as a publisher of third-party authorized speech, its First Amendment right to control its own website was violated by this decision.  Furthermore, due to this decision, businesses now have an effective tool in removing unflattering commentary whereas online entities like Yelp are denied their right to exercise editorial control in publishing consumer reviews.  Overall, Yelp urges the California Supreme Court to reverse the Court of Appeals’ decision because this case provides an opportunity to abuse the court system in order to stifle speech on the Internet.

In Hassell’s Answering Brief on the Merits, Hassell argues that invoking the First Amendment, the Due Process clause, and the federal Communications Decency Act will not help Yelp escape a court order preventing them from republishing postings that have been judicially determined as defamatory.  Hassell cites to both cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, who have consistently held that defamatory speech falls outside of the scope of First Amendment protections.  For example, U.S. Supreme Court cases, Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition and Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc.; and Balboa Island Village Inn, Inc. v. Lemen, a California Supreme Court case, all demonstrate that false statements are not protected from any constitutional provision because they harm both the subject of the false statements and the readers of the statement.

Overall, Hassell declares that the same prohibition against speakers to create defamatory speech should apply to anyone, like Yelp, who is distributing defamatory speech.  Hassell argues that she tried to resolve this matter out of court with both Yelp and Bird, but since she was unsuccessful to coming to a reasonable agreement, she sought the relief that she is rightfully entitled to from the court.

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Potential Lasting Effects on Online Forums 

Any action the California Supreme Court takes will have a lasting effect on the limitations of free speech online.  If the California Supreme Court determines that forum administrators, like Yelp, bear the responsibility of monitoring whether a consumer has posted a negative false review that is considered defamatory, businesses can easily have reviews removed by the forum administrator if they believe that the review is offensive and inaccurate.

Anytime there is a negative review that a business believes is defamatory, the business can just go to court in order to receive a declaration telling the forum administrator to delete the personal reviews made by consumers.

Although this decision helps those who want to protect their businesses from false negative reviews, the decision may also create infringements on consumers’ freedom of expression because there is a possibility that their accurate descriptions of their experiences can be declared defamatory and censored by a court.

The restriction of past consumers to freely express their negative opinions of a business can also have an effect on future consumers, because future consumers may be attracted to a business who did something to improve its consumer experience.  Also, without seeing constructive criticism from consumers, businesses will not know how to become better or have an incentive to change.  An honest review is an important asset to a business because it can encourage more foot traffic or it can provide the business with an opportunity to better cater to its consumers.  Although it is unknown how the California Supreme Court will rule, it is likely that this decision will have a lasting effect on how consumers use social media and online forums to review their experiences.

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Image by Steve Rhodes (via Flickr.com/photos/ari/2131987021)

A 15 million dollar clock: How much is too much?

In September 2015, Ahmed Mohamed, a freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, brought a homemade digital clock to school. Ahmed showed his creation to his engineering teacher, who cautioned him not to show it to others.

Ignoring this advice, Ahmed set the time, which caused an alarm to ring during class. Understandably, his English teacher confiscated the gadget. Even though Ahmed insisted it was only a clock, his teacher notified the school principal because she believed the device “looked like a bomb.”

Ahmed was pulled out of class and questioned by five police officers, the principal, and the assistant principal. They regarded him as both “non-responsive” and “passive aggressive” when questioned. Deemed uncooperative, he was handcuffed, fingerprinted, and interviewed again at police headquarters. Finding no malicious intent, Ahmed was soon released to his parents. While no criminal charges were filed, he was suspended for three days.

The Irving Police Department conducted its investigation of the suspicious-looking item because they believed it to be a “hoax bomb.” They claimed their inquiry was meant to determine Ahmed’s intent for bringing in the device, not whether or not the device was a bomb, as made evident by the fact that the school was not evacuated. Under Texas law, it is a misdemeanor if a “person knowingly manufactures, sells, purchases, transports, or possesses a hoax bomb with intent to . . . (1) make another believe that [it] is an explosive or incendiary device; or (2) cause alarm or reaction of any type by an official of a public safety agency or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies.”

Since the incident, independent bloggers have reverse-engineered the homemade clock, and concluded that the device was a commercially available alarm clock, from which Ahmed simply removed the plastic casing and placed the open wires into a pencil box.

When Ahmed’s arrest was first reported, it received immense attention on social media. According to the Los Angeles Times, Topsy, a social analytics site, reported close to a million people (including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and various NASA scientists) outpoured support through the hashtag: #IstandwithAhmed. The news focused its narrative on how this inventive, hard-working, and industrious young man was unjustly harassed simply for being a Muslim of Sudanese decent. Supporters claimed the situation typified racism and Islamophobia in America, and many vilified the teachers, the school officials, the school district, and the police for anti-Islamic sentiments and racial profiling.

The school district charged media outlets as presenting a completely one-sided report of the incident. It seemed to officials that Ahmed spoke more with reporters than to the officers investigating the issue.

Both Beth Van Duyne, Irving Mayor, and Jim Hanson, a former member of the United States Special Forces and now Executive Vice President of the Center for Security Policy, said the situation was handled properly because the teacher was reacting to the device, not the child who brought in the device. Larry Boyd, Chief of Police for Irving, said the situation would have been handled in the same exact manner, regardless of the religion and nationality of the student. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools – Healthy Students Initiative, every student is held to the same stringent zero tolerance policies found in most school districts.

To emphasize this point, the school sent a letter to all parents, reminding them to tell their children to report any suspicious items or behaviors. The school stressed that such precautions were necessary to protect the students from potential or threatened harm. The school’s statement read that if something is out of the ordinary, “it is [important] to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior . . . to any school employee so [it] can [be] addressed . . . right away. [The school] will always take necessary precautions to protect our students [and keep our school community as safe as possible].”

Now, the Mohamed family seeks to file a civil suit against the city and school officials of Irving. Ahmed’s attorneys allege civil rights violations, which caused severe psychological trauma after Ahmed’s “reputation in the global community [was] permanently scarred.” They are demanding relief in the amount of an astounding $15,000,000 (and, of course, an apology).

Inconsistent with his claim of a scarred global reputation, after his story went viral, invitations poured in for Ahmed to visit Facebook, attend a Google science fair, accept an internship with Twitter, meet with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, pose with the Jordanian queen at a United Nations Summit, appear on various television programs, and go to Astronomy Night at the White House, where the president hosted astronauts and students to promote science and technological careers. In addition, Ahmed and his family have since moved to Qatar, where Ahmed accepted a generous scholarship to join the Young Innovators Program under the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

It is unknown whether Ahmed will continue to pursue this civil rights lawsuit. If he does, hopefully the city and school officials of Irving will not reach a settlement with him just to avoid another social media outcry. He may have been upset about being placed in handcuffs, but under the circumstances, the school district acted reasonably and within the guidelines of Texas law, the Safe School – Healthy Students Initiative, and MacArthur High’s Code of Conduct.

What Do You Really Want? Speech v. Reputation in a World of Instant Gratification

The "Loaded Hash Browns" at Jacks N Joe.
The “Loaded Hash Browns” at Jacks N Joe.

“Where do you want to eat?”

That’s the question many food aficionados ask when they start making dining plans for the day. It’s also the question most regular people ask on a daily basis – it doesn’t matter if you’re in a relationship, celebrating with friends, or simply divulging in the numerous food spots your town has to offer.

Today’s social media provides us with an unprecedented platform for expression. Although you can definitely sue someone for defaming you, social media’s expansive platform has created an unintentional temptation for abuse – we can say what we want, how we want, about who and what we want, with very minimal worry for consequences.

Eating out at restaurants is extremely common, particularly in big cities and populations like the Bay Area. It is no longer seen as something reserved for a special occasion. Hipsters love to buck the trend, but right now, what’s “in” is what’s “out” – as in what food is “out” there, and how can I find it?

Buying groceries and cooking a meal at home isn’t cool anymore. It may be more expensive to maintain a “going-out-to-eat” diet, but it’s more in tune with the times. In particular, San Francisco is full of “techies” and young folks with disposable income. Other than the newest smartphone or fancy cocktails at “that bar everyone goes to,” these folks cannot wait to spend their money on all the newest and most popular foods that everyone in their inner-circle is talking about.

If you’re in the know, then you know that Yelp! is the number one way to find out where those best eats are. The website (and app) allow anyone to filter their search by the type of food, the price of food, and the desired area of dining within seconds.

Other social media outlets provide even more ways for foodies to share their love with the rest of the world: Instagram, Foursquare, Twitter, and Facebook provide windows into the kitchens of the finest food joints around. The sharing is fun, and it has created instant access for anyone with a smart phone and an affinity for “friends,” “@” signs, and “hashtags.”

But with all this sharing, there is a great deal of reliance being placed on strangers to tell us what is “good” and what is “bad.” I’ll admit – when I look to Yelp to find a good breakfast place (the morning after a jolly evening with my companions), I expect the app to be accurate. I want to find a place that sells Corned Beef Hash, within 5 blocks from Mission St., that’s open by 8:00am, for less than $5, and that accepts credit cards. I rely on Yelp, and the users who share on Yelp, to find that for me. And I do not expect them to fail me.

But what happens if I don’t get the information I’m looking for? Or if Yelp leads me astray? Or if a restaurant hasn’t conformed to a certain part of my search criteria?

For some people, the answer is not so pretty: they’ll post bad ratings on Yelp despite never actually eating the food. A picture on Instagram will be shared, but a caption will be included disparaging the establishment for not being open at 5:00am or not accepting credit cards. Some tweets imply incompetence due to one food item’s inadequacy. Some dedicate entire Twitter accounts to disparage the restaurant. And some tweets are somewhere in between being confused and upset.

Have we gotten to the point where that kind of criticism is warranted? Do we rely on these applications so much that we’ve come to expect them to be on point, all the time, no matter what? It should not come to the point where, when these searches fail us, we can destroy a restaurant’s reputation with unfettered discretion.

Our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech are strong, and we are all entitled to our opinions. But the state always has a counter-balancing interest in protecting one’s reputation. Businesses in the food industry rely on their clientele enjoying their experience and spreading the word to other potential customers. A line must be drawn between “angry foodie upset with the restaurant experience” and “unwarranted comments detrimental to the reputation of a restaurant.”

Defamation is when someone makes statements about another person, causing that person’s reputation to sink within the community. At common law, one could be liable for a defamatory statement concerning someone else if that statement was published to other people. “Publishing” included writing, radio, and spoken words – and the more permanent the message could be, the easier someone could sue and win a defamation suit.

In this day and age, commentary on social media has a serious and permanent impact on a restaurant’s reputation. This goes both ways: if commentary is good, customers come flocking in; if commentary is bad, customers have the presumption that the restaurant is never worth visiting.

When we consider going out to eat, there is a lot of value in getting a “heads-up” from others about the quality of a restaurant’s food and service. If the food, service, or overall experience is actually poor, a bad review is justified. And “truth” is always a defense to any claim of defamation.

But hateful comments, even in the context of food, can be an unlawful assault on a restaurant’s reputation. Most restaurants are focused on making a profit – they’re not focusing on whether they need to file a defamation lawsuit in response to spiteful social media attacks.

But all it takes is a few bad reviews for a restaurant to start going under (even if certain restaurants have recently challenged that premise).

So before you tell me where you want to eat, really think about what you want, and how you know you want it.

I know you’re hungry, but try not to get too cranky while we try to find the right place!