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California Supreme Court rules Yelp can't be ordered to remove bad reviews

The decision is a relief for many in Silicon Valley.

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Yelp doesn't have to remove negative reviews, California Supreme Court rules.

Josh Miller/CNET

Yelp doesn't have to remove negative comments posted on its site, after all.

In the closely watched case of Hassell v Bird, the Supreme Court of California on Monday ruled 4-3 that Yelp can't be ordered to take down negative comments, the Associated Press reported.

That decision overturned two lower court rulings that ordered Yelp to remove  "defamatory" reviews posted by attorney Dawn Hassell's former client, Ava Bird.

Yelp challenged that ruling, saying Hassell failed to prove Bird's comments were actually defamatory, that it couldn't be held liable for speech posted on its platform and that the company -- which wasn't a party in the lawsuit -- couldn't be forced to comply.

California's Supreme Court agreed.

"In directing Yelp to remove the challenged reviews from its website, the removal order improperly treats Yelp as 'the publisher or speaker of ... information provided by another information content provider,'" the court wrote in its ruling (posted below). 

"With this decision, online publishers in California can be assured that they cannot be lawfully forced to remove third-party speech through enterprising abuses of the legal system, and those of us that use such platforms to express ourselves cannot be easily silenced through such tactics either," Aaron Schur, Yelp's deputy general counsel, wrote on the company's official blog.

The decision is a relief for many in Silicon Valley, which viewed the lower courts' decisions as an attack on the First Amendment. "Neither court seemed to understand that the First Amendment protects not only authors and speakers, but also those who publish or distribute their words," digital rights advocate Electric Frontier Foundation wrote last year.

Monday's ruling may not mark an end to the courtroom proceedings, however. "Hassell is considering all legal options, including review by the U.S. Supreme Court," her attorney, Monique Oliver, said in an emailed statement.

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