In its decade old existence, Avvo, Inc., an “on line legal services marketplace,” has been no stranger to controversy. Private attorneys and bar associations alike have objected to Avvo’s business model and practices – some filing defamation lawsuits against the company while others have demanded in regulatory venues that Avvo stop its unconsented “scraping” of attorney data.
Vrdolyak v. Avvo, Inc. is the latest installment of a lawyer suing Avvo; this time challenging Avvo-pro, the on-line directory’s pay-to-play service.
For about $50 a month, Avvo-pro users can ensure that no rival attorney ads appear on their profile page. But if the attorney chooses not to participate in Avvo-pro, he will likely see competitor ads on his Avvo page.
The plaintiff, a non-Avvo-pro participant, sued Avvo under Illinois’ Right to Publicity Act. He argued that by selling competitor ads on his profile page, Avvo usurped plaintiff’s right to monetize his identity.
In effect, according to plaintiff, Avvo was capitalizing on plaintiff’s brand and using it as a platform for rival lawyers to peddle their services to anyone who visited plaintiff’s Avvo page.
The Court granted Avvo’s motion to dismiss on the basis that Avvo’s ads were protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The key inquiry was whether Avvo’s site constitutes commercial or non-commercial speech. If speech is non-commercial, it is entitled to expansive First Amendment protection that can only be restricted in extraordinary circumstances.
Commercial speech, by contrast, receives less First Amendment protection. It can be more easily scrutinized and vulnerable to defamation or publicity statute claims.
The court cited daily newspapers and telephone directory “yellow pages” as prototypical examples of non-commercial speech.
While both sell advertising, a newspaper’s and yellow pages’ main purpose is to provide information. Any ad revenue derived by the paper or phone directory is ancillary to their primary function as information distributor.
Commercial speech proposes a commercial transaction, including through the use of a trademark or a company’s brand awareness. If speech has both commercial and non-commercial elements (e.g. where a commercial transaction is offered at the same time a matter of social importance is discussed), the court tries to divine the main purpose of the speech by considering if (1) the speech is an advertisement, (2) it refers to a specific product and (3) the speaker’s economic motivation.
The Court agreed with Avvo that its site was akin to a computerized yellow pages; That the core of Avvo was non-commercial speech: it provides attorney information culled from various sources.
The court distinguished basketball legend Michael Jordan’s recent lawsuit against Jewel food stores for taking out an ad in Sports Illustrated, ostensibly for commending Jordan on his recent basketball hall of fame induction.
The Seventh Circuit there found that Jewel’s conduct clearly aimed to associate Jordan with Jewel’s brand and in the process promote Jewel’s supermarkets. As a result, Jewel’s actions were deemed commercial speech and subject to a higher level of court scrutiny. Jordan v. Jewel Food Stores, Inc., 743 F.3d 509, 515 (7th Cir. 2014).
In the end, the Avvo case turned on this binary question: was Avvo a non-commercial attorney directory with incidental advertising, or was each Avvo attorney profile an advertisement for the competitors’ “Sponsored Listings” (the name ascribed to competing attorneys who paid for ads to be placed on plaintiff’s profile page).
Since not every attorney profile contained advertisements and none of the challenged ads used plaintiff’s name, the Court found Avvo was like a newspaper or yellow pages directory entitled to free speech protection.
The Court likened Avvo to Sports Illustrated – a publication that features ads but whose main purpose is non-commercial (i.e. Providing sports news). Like SI, Avvo publishes non-commercial information – attorney stats – and within that information, places advertisements.
To hold otherwise and allow plaintiff’s publicity suit to go forward, “any entity that publishes truthful newsworthy information about….professionals, such as a newspaper or yellow page directory, would risk civil liability simply because it generated ad revenue” from competing vendors.
Afterword: This case presents an interesting application of venerable First Amendment principles to the post-modern, computerized context.
A case lesson is that even if speech has some obvious money-making byproducts, it still can garner constitutional protection where its main purpose is to impart information rather than to attract paying customers.