Online platforms must be allowed to assert their anonymous users’ First Amendment rights in court, EFF argued in a brief filed Monday in a California appellate court.
The case, Yelp v. Superior Court, concerns whether online review website Yelp has the legal right to appear in court and make arguments on behalf of its users.
Courts across the country have increasingly recognized that online platforms do have the right to argue for their users’ free speech rights, particularly when private litigants or government officials seek to learn the speakers’ identities.
A California trial court, however, ruled in December 2016 that Yelp could not assert a user’s First Amendment rights after the platform received a subpoena seeking the identity of a Yelp user that a plaintiff alleged had defamed him and his business.
But as EFF’s brief [.pdf] argues, online platforms have both a legal right and an important role to play in asserting their users’ free speech rights.
Besides anonymous speakers asserting their own rights to directly challenge the legal demands to unmask them, online platforms are increasingly asserting their users’ rights in court. Platforms assert their users’ rights for a variety of reasons, including deterring frivolous efforts to unmask speakers and upholding their own platforms’ views on the importance of free speech. They also seek to make their platforms hospitable to important speech that may only be offered under the veil of anonymity. Simply put, many online platforms recognize that a key to maintaining the robust forum their users rely upon requires having their users’ backs.
The trial court’s ruling is dangerous, EFF argues, because it “threatens to undermine online platforms’ standing to assert their users’ First Amendment rights and thereby erode the ability for the Internet to serve as a forum for anonymous speakers.”
If platforms do not have a legal right to stand up for their users, “defense of these vexatious requests will fall solely to users themselves, many of whom may not know their rights or may otherwise not be in a position to fight for them,” EFF’s brief argues.