The Supreme Court gave Yelp and other interactive computer service providers reason to celebrate recently when it quietly declined to hear an appeal of a case charging Yelp with defamation in connection with one of the consumer reviews posted on the site. In refusing to hear the appeal, the Court left in place a Fourth Circuit decision that held that interactive computer service providers like Yelp cannot be held legally responsible for information created and developed by third parties.
The case stems from a lawsuit brought against Yelp by a law firm called Westlake Legal Group and one of its attorneys, Thomas K. Plofchan, Jr. In 2009, a client of Westlake and Plofchan named Christopher Schumacher posted a negative review on Yelp suggesting that Plofchan was a liar and a “huckster.” The firm and Plofchan sued Yelp for defamation, alleging that Yelp recklessly published Schumacher’s critical review without regard for whether the statements were true. According to Westlake and Plofchan, they asked Yelp to remove the review four times, but it remained on the site.
Both the federal district court in Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the defamation claim against Yelp was barred by the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA is a 1996 federal law that provides interactive computer services such as Yelp, Facebook, and YouTube, with protection from legal claims related to content created and developed by third parties.
In order to avoid legal liability, computer service providers must generally refrain from being involved in the creation of the content at issue. Although computer service providers are permitted to engage in “traditional editorial functions” and still be eligible for safe harbor protection, any involvement with the drafting or revision of content could expose the service provider to liability. Yelp’s website utilizes an automated system that filters reviews, but the courts determined that such activity falls squarely within the scope of “traditional editorial functions” and does not render Yelp a content provider. Westlake and Plofchan asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the lower court decisions, but the Supreme Court declined.
By declining to review the case, the Supreme Court leaves in place another in a growing number of cases that reinforce the strength and durability of the CDA’s safe harbor provision. Since it passed nearly two decades ago, the CDA safe harbor provision has emerged as one of the most important legal protections for interactive computer service providers and the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the Westlake/Plofchan case suggests it is in no mood to upset that trend. Any company or business that allows users to post user-generated content on its website, including in blogs or comment sections, should be familiar with the CDA and its important legal protections.