Avvo has a First Amendment right to use a lawyer’s publically-available information to generate advertising revenue for itself, the district court for the Northern District of Illinois held on September 12.

As we’ve explained before, Avvo’s business model works like this:

  • Avvo creates “profile pages” of individual lawyers using publically-available data;
  • then, Avvo collects a fee from lawyers to allow them to put ads for their practices on the profile pages of lawyers who don’t pay the fee — and the lawyer profiles where the paid ads appear are those of head-to-head competitors;
  • then, if you are the target of this shake-down tactic, you can pay a fee to keep Avvo from putting ads for your competitors on your profile page.

Nice, right?

“Non-commercial” speech

And it’s all protected by strict constitutional scrutiny as non-commercial free speech, said the district court, in dismissing the putative class action of an Illinois lawyer who said that Avvo’s gambit violated state law by using his identity for commercial purposes without his permission.

In granting Avvo’s motion to dismiss, the district court said that

[T]o hold otherwise would lead to the unintended result that any entity that publishes truthful newsworthy information about individuals such as teachers, directors and other professionals, such as a newspaper or yellow page directory, would risk civil liability simply because it generated revenue from advertisements placed by others in the same field.

The court viewed the Avvo site as a mere directory, and analogized it to Sports Illustrated magazine: just like the magazine has editorial content plus ads, the Avvo site has non-commercial speech consisting of the lawyer profiles — plus ads. The court reasoned that just as ads do not convert the entire magazine into commercial speech, Avvo’s ads do not “turn the entire attorney directory into commercial speech.”

Money train

So the Avvo juggernaut rolls on. In August, reports Bob Ambrogi’s Law Sites, “a California lawyer dropped his putative class action against Avvo after Avvo brought a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law.” Avvo has also successfully torpedoed a 2007 federal class action complaint in Washington and a suit filed in Florida that was later transferred to Washington.

Ambrogi quotes Avvo’s chief legal officer on the company’s win: “This is further validation that publishers like Avvo needn’t obtain the consent of their subjects prior to exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Josh King.

As I reported in February, Avvo has taken my Ohio bar information, found a picture of me (though it is a gorgeous one, I must say), and put up my profile, all without my permission. And there are still four ads for other lawyers on my profile page– so Avvo continues to use my data to make money for itself. No phone book or lawyer directory that I know of has Avvo’s rapacious business model. But as long as courts continue to see Avvo as a mere phone book — or worse, a magazine — it will continue to expand its empire at the expense of lawyers who won’t play along.