Cross-posted from Techdirt November 14, 2017.
Earlier this year I wrote about Yelp’s appeal in Montagna v. Nunis. This was a case where a plaintiff had subpoenaed Yelp to unmask one of its users and Yelp tried to resist the subpoena. In that case, not only had the lower court refused to quash the subpoena, but it sanctioned Yelp for having tried to quash it. Per the court, Yelp had no right to try to assert the First Amendment rights of its users as a basis for resisting a subpoena. As we said in the amicus brief I filed for the Copia Institute in Yelp’s appeal of the ruling, if the lower court were right it would be bad news for anonymous speakers, because if platforms could not resist unfounded subpoenas then users would lose an important line of defense against all the unfounded subpoenas seeking to unmask them for no legitimate reason.
Fortunately, a California appeals court just agreed it would be problematic if platforms could not push back against these subpoenas. Not only has this decision avoided creating inconsistent law in California (earlier this year a different California appeals court had reached a similar conclusion), but now there is even more language on the books affirming that platforms are able to try to stand up for their users’ First Amendment rights, including their right to speak anonymously. As we noted, platforms can’t always push back against these discovery demands, but it is often in their interests to try protect the user communities that provide the content that make their platforms valuable. If they never could, it would seriously undermine those user communities and all the content these platforms enable.
The other bit of good news from the decision is that the appeals court overturned the sanction award against Yelp. It would have significantly chilled platforms if they had to think twice before standing up for their users because of how much it could cost them financially for trying to do so.
But any celebration of this decision needs to be tempered by the fact that the appeals court also decided to uphold the subpoena in question. While it didn’t fault Yelp for having tried to defend its users, and, importantly, it found that it had the legal ability to, it gave short shrift to that defense.
The test that California uses to decide whether to uphold or quash a subpoena is a test from a case called Krinsky, which asks whether the plaintiff has made a “prima facie” case. In other words, we don’t know if the plaintiff necessarily would win, but we want to ensure that it’s at least possible for plaintiffs to prevail on their claims before we strip speakers of their anonymity for no good reason. That’s all well and good, but thanks to the appeals court’s extraordinarily generous read of the statements at issue in this case, one that went out of its way to infer the possibility of falsity in what were at their essence statements of opinion (which is ordinarily protected by the First Amendment), the appeals court decided that the test had been satisfied.
This outcome is not only unfortunate for the user whose identity will now be revealed to the plaintiff but for all future speakers now that there is an appellate decision on the books running through the “prima facie” balancing test in a way that so casually dismisses the protections speech normally has. It at least would have been better if the question considering whether the subpoena should be quashed had been remanded to the lower court, where, even if that court still reached a decision too easily-puncturing of the First Amendment protection for online speech it would have posed less of a risk to other speech in the future.