Why it matters: California's Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Yelp could not be compelled to remove negative reviews about law firm Hassell Law Group, posted by user Ava Bird. This ruling could set a positive precedent for future cases, helping Yelp remain a relatively neutral site with the integrity of its review system in tact.
Online censorship has always been a concern for internet users, whether it comes in the form of copyright takedowns on videos that are widely considered "fair use," or crackdowns on social media misbehavior.
However, one portion of the internet that has always seemed relatively safe is review websites like Yelp. While companies have certainly pressured Yelp to remove negative reviews in the past, the company has deflected most of these concerns quite easily.
Unfortunately for Yelp, back in 2012, Hassell Law Group (HLG) decided to put more pressure on the platform than other companies. During that year, one of HLG's former clients wrote a less-than-glowing review of the law firm, prompting them to file a lawsuit against Ava Bird for defamation.
After the lawsuit concluded in favor of HLG (a victory by default - Bird failed to show up for her day in court), Yelp was ordered to take down the reviews.
Naturally, Yelp bristled at this; they weren't even asked to represent themselves in the case. As such, the review aggregator argued that they were protected against the order under the Communications Decency Act.
Though lower courts disagreed with Yelp's argument, California's Supreme Court on Monday dissented from that consensus in a 4-3 vote. The court ruled that the California Court of Appeal's rejection of Yelp's argument was in error, adding that Yelp is not the publisher or speaker of the content in question (Bird's negative reviews).
While Bird has still been compelled to remove the reviews herself, this Supreme Court ruling could set a favorable precedent for similar cases in the future. After all, the Court seems to have determined that Yelp is not responsible for the content the reviews their users publish, and cannot be compelled to remove it.
In theory, this case could serve to protect the integrity of Yelp's platform moving forward, but only time will tell if another company will try something similar to what HLG did here.