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  • Posts by Joseph Meadows
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    Joe Meadows is a shareholder at Bean, Kinney & Korman. He is an experienced trial attorney, focusing on complex civil litigation, internet defamation/disparagement and cyber-attack matters. Joe is also known for his extensive ...

Back in July, we provided our five takeaways from the California Supreme Court’s decision in Hassell v. Bird that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“Section 230”), which confers defamation immunity upon internet sites that “publish” content of another, protected Yelp from a take-down order directing it to remove defamatory content. After the decision, Hassell asked the nation’s highest Court to hear the case. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to do so, leaving lower courts free to determine the scope of Section 230 immunity in connection with take-down orders.

Negative online reviews, social media trolls, defamation claims, non-disparagement agreements - these topics and other legal and PR related concerns were discussed at our first Internet Defamation briefing.

As internet speech grows, so do internet defamation cases. It is easier today to ruin names, brands, and reputations with online negative statements. Yet it is also easier today to raise issues and advocate change before a widespread audience connected by the internet. 

These 10 questions should help an online company spot or a blogger avoid online defamation.

1. Is the statement defamatory in character?

A defamatory statement (written, oral, or visual) hurts another’s reputation. Accusations that another committed a crime or engaged in immoral or unprofessional conduct are per se defamatory, which can lead to automatic damages. An embarrassing or annoying statement is not defamatory.

Earlier this month, California’s highest court ruled that Yelp did not have to remove defamatory posts despite having been ordered to do so.  In the plurality opinion, the California Supreme Court held in Hassell v. Bird that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”) immunized Yelp from the “take-down” order.1

The Hassell case started with lawyer Dawn Hassell suing ex-client Ava Bird for defamation. Bird--using a pseudonym, but otherwise giving away her identity--had posted negative comments about Hassell’s legal service on Yelp. Bird did not defend against the suit and Hassell obtained a default judgment. That judgment included language requiring Yelp, who was not named as a party in the suit, to remove the negative posts. At the trial and intermediate-appellate courts, Yelp unsuccessfully sought to set aside the take-down order on the grounds that Yelp was denied due process and immunity protections under Section 230 of the CDA. For Yelp, third time was the charm: on appeal to the highest court in California, and re-asserting the same arguments as those raised in the lower courts, Yelp succeeded in setting aside the take-down order.