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Glassdoor Wins Lawsuit, Creates New California Precedent to Protect Anonymous Free Speech

The protection of an individual’s right to free speech – which includes the ability of people everywhere to leave anonymous reviews of their workplace experiences – has been a key foundational driver for Glassdoor since we launched our website nearly nine years ago.

Our comprehensive efforts to defend anonymity and free speech comes in various forms, including support for legislation, litigation, and regulation and consumer education and advocacy.

Earlier this month, we reached an important milestone on the legal front with broad implications for Glassdoor and other publishers.  In its decision in Glassdoor, Inc. vs. Superior Court of Santa Clarathe Sixth District California Court of Appeal overturned a trial court ruling that would have required the identification of the author of an anonymous employee review of Machine Zone, Inc. (since rebranded MZ).  MZ had alleged that the post disclosed information in violation an employment non-disclosure agreement.

In doing so, the Court set three legal precedents that greatly strengthen the ability of Glassdoor and other websites that publish user-generated content to protect and safeguard the identity of anonymous individuals who share free speech online.

  1. Establishes that Glassdoor has standing to assert the First Amendment interests of our members while maintaining their anonymity.  In addition to Glassdoor, the ruling should also apply to other publishers, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, who assert these rights on behalf of their contributors.
  2. Extends California’s legal test applicable to the question whether to allow a defamation plaintiff to unmask the identity of an anonymous speaker to any claim implicating anonymous free speech, like a claim of breach of a non-disclosure agreement or breach of other contracts. In short, the Glassdoor test requires that, whenever anonymous free speech is challenged, before the speaker is unmasked, the plaintiff must now prove that they have a “prima facie” claim (this is legalese that means evidence must be presented to show the claim is valid on its face).
  3. The Glassdoor test also requires that anyone seeking to obtain the identity of an anonymous speaker must clearly identify, on the record, the specific statements that are claimed to be actionable.  This means, for instance, that an employer challenging a Glassdoor review must identify the specific parts of the review they believe are unlawful.

These new rules clarify legal principles that had not yet been stated in a published California appellate opinion. They are now binding precedent to be applied in trial courts throughout California – and will serve as important persuasive authority for courts evaluating anonymous speech cases across the U.S.  This raises the stakes for companies and their executives who attempt to take legal action against anonymous free speech, including against Glassdoor members, without adequate basis.

This unprecedented decision is the latest in our ongoing and important work to promote and defend the rights of workers – and people at large – to speak freely about their opinions and experience at work, without threat of intimidation or retaliation.

  1. Legislative Support: We are supporting the passage of Federal anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) legislation to protect all Americans from frivolous lawsuits.  SLAPPs are increasingly used to attempt to censor Americans from speaking out on issues they feel are important and used by companies to intimidate or dissuade employees from leaving anonymous reviews about the workplace.  Currently, only 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have anti-SLAPP laws in place, and their protections vary widely.  A federal law would implement consistent laws to protect Americans, regardless of where they live, from other individuals or entities that use meritless SLAPP suits as intimidation and retaliation tactics.
  2. Litigation Support:  In addition to this latest decision, we have been successful in more than 80 cases to protect the anonymity of our members.  We have also funded the filing of anti-SLAPP motions on behalf of our members in California and Texas to further protect workers’ ability to post anonymous reviews.
  3. Regulatory Action:  When employers have taken legal action against our members to enforce employee agreements that unlawfully restrict free speech around wages and working conditions, we’ve informed the National Labor Relations Board, leading to employers remediating their unlawful agreements and notifying their employees of their protected speech rights.  For instance, this happened with MZ.
  4. Consumer Education and Advocacy: We are driving ongoing public dialogue on the negative impact of SLAPP suits and the importance of devising strategies to limit their effectiveness.

While the vast majority of the more than 650,000 companies that have been rated and reviewed on Glassdoor embrace transparency and the rights of their employees to post on Glassdoor anonymously, there are those who seek to unmask Glassdoor members in an effort to retaliate or make an example of them. [See the Glassdoor Free Speech Fact Sheet with additional background on other recent legal cases that Glassdoor has fought to defend the First Amendment rights of our members and protect their anonymity.]

We know that the honesty and transparency allowed by anonymous free speech are essential to helping people find a job and company they love.  Our sincere thanks to our fantastic litigation team – including our Deputy General Counsel, Tom O’Brien and the team at Seubert, French, Frimel & Warner LLP:  Bill Frimel, Chris Edgar and Rebecca Epstein – for their great work to make these new protections of anonymous free speech a reality.