Yelp and Texas AG file competing suits over disclaimers on crisis pregnancy centers | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Yelp and Texas AG file competing suits over disclaimers on crisis pregnancy centers

One of the most popular review platforms in the U.S. sued Texas and its attorney general for threatening legal action over the company’s abortion disclaimers on crisis pregnancy centers. Texas filed suit the next day.

(CN) — Yelp and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued one another on this week over a disagreement on whether the company mislabels crisis pregnancy centers without abortion services.

As of Sept. 28, 2023, the popular review platform posts a consumer disclaimer on the business profiles of crisis pregnancy centers when they do not provide abortion services. The notice reads: “This is a crisis pregnancy center. Crisis pregnancy centers do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers.”

Yelp began labeling crisis pregnancy centers after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to provide transparent information about reproductive health services. The platform also claims its decision arrived after learning that some crisis pregnancy centers intentionally misled consumers about their services and diverted them from seeking medical abortions from actual medical providers.

That’s according to Yelp’s complaint filed in San Francisco’s federal court on Wednesday, which sought to preemptively stop Paxton and the state of Texas from infringing on its right to identify crisis pregnancy centers that do not offer abortion services.

On Sept. 23, 2023, Yelp says that Paxton sent notice of his intent to sue the company over its disclaimers for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. That notice arrived nearly six months after Paxton joined 23 other state attorneys general demanding that Yelp remove its original consumer notice for crisis pregnancy centers that “typically provide limited medical services and may not have licensed medical professionals on staff.”

According to Paxton’s press release at the time, the disclaimers “are thinly-veiled attempts to discriminate against the centers with information may be false,” adding that they “threaten to steer away hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women and families who could benefit from using the services provided by pregnancy centers across the country.”

The other problem, Paxton wrote, was that Yelp did not add the same disclaimer to facilities operated by Planned Parenthood. In the initial February letter, the attorneys general expressed that if any facility should have a disclaimer noting a lack of limited services or licensed medical professionals, it should be Planned Parenthood and other abortion services.

Yelp disagreed, though it still revised its notice to its current format. The current statement, Yelp writes, is truthful information intended to help its users make informed decisions, adding that it never removed such facilities from its platform and strives to “categorize crisis pregnancy centers more accurately and to distinguish them from health care providers that do offer abortions or abortion referrals.”

Paxton updated his press release days later, describing the new notice as an “accurate description.” But even so, Yelp claims that Paxton’s Sept. 22 notice warns that he may seek civil penalties up to $10,000 per violation with attorneys’ fees, and it believes he will sue the company as soon as Friday.

Paxton sued on Thursday in Texas’ Bastrop County trial court, circling back to his initial gripe with the earlier notice.

“Pregnancy resource centers provide significant care and counseling to pregnant women. And they commonly provide significant medical services, and have licensed medical professionals onsite,” Paxton wrote in a complaint brought on behalf of the State of Texas.

The attorney general added that Yelp failed to add the consumer notice to “other providers that catered to pregnant women,” and that its open politics motivated this discrepancy.

Paxton doubled down on the latter point in a press release, stating that when the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman aired his desire to “take action” and claimed Yelp provides special assistance to organizations fighting against abortion bans.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas made abortions completely illegal.

“Yelp cannot mislead and deceive the public simply because the company disagrees with our state’s abortion laws,” Paxton said in a statement. “Major companies cannot abuse their platforms and influence to control consumers’ behavior, especially on sensitive health issues like pregnancy and abortion.”

Paxton’s lawsuit claims that even after certain pregnancy centers informed Yelp that their disclaimer was untrue, the company refused to remove it for several months.

“Yelp’s actions violated Texas law,” Paxton says in the suit. “Although Yelp appears to have eliminated this misleading disclaimer from pregnancy resource centers’ Yelp pages, Yelp remains liable for penalties and other relief for the duration of its unlawful behavior.”

Yelp saw the bottom line differently in its complaint.

“Notably, the letter does not confine its threat to Yelp’s ‘violations’ in Texas but seeks to punish editorial choices — made by a California company — globally,” Yelp says, adding that it not only “expects imminent prosecution for these past exercises of its First Amendment Rights” but that Paxton’s actions “have caused Yelp concern about exercising those rights without inhibition in the future.”

“An injunction is necessary to avert an irreparable chill on Yelp’s First Amendment rights, and free Yelp from either forgoing its rights or facing prosecution for exercising them,” the review platform wrote.

Yelp was not available for an interview, though a company representative issued a statement noting how Paxton’s initial notice to sue “takes issue with a truthful consumer notice that hasn’t been used on the Yelp site for over six months, won’t be used again, and which was helpful in informing consumers about crisis pregnancy centers.”

Yelp is represented by Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco.

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