Anti-Muslim troll and self-proclaimed First Amendment warrior Pam Geller’s stupid lawsuit against the DOJ for social media companies’ removal of her Islamophobic posts has reached an end (if only temporarily). DC District Court Judge James Boasberg’s decision pretty much aligns with the DOJ’s motion to dismiss: in short, Geller is wrong about Section 230, wrong about the DOJ’s “enforcement” of this affirmative defense, and not even close to targeting the right entity(ies) in her lawsuit. (via Eric Goldman)
A very short recap: Geller routinely posted anti-Mulism content to social media platforms. These platforms would take her posts down and occasionally suspend her accounts. Geller felt this was censorship (it isn’t) so she sued not Facebook, not Twitter, not any other social media service but the federal government. In her view Section 230 of the CDA is not a defense, but an excuse for social media platforms to remove her dubious contributions. What Geller ignores is that Section 230 is likely the only reason her posts stay live at any platform for any length of time, simply because it shields Facebook et al from being held civilly liable for content created by users.
Boasberg’s opinion [PDF] only runs 11 pages but it’s more than enough to dispense with Geller’s ridiculous legal arguments. He gets right to the crux of the issue in the first paragraph.
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter may be host to a mélange of cat videos, musings from long-lost cousins, and odes to Beyoncé, but not all content is welcome on these social-media platforms. Pursuant to their private terms of service, the companies have repeatedly taken down some of Plaintiffs’ posts criticizing Islam. Plaintiffs — two non-profit organizations and their leaders — allege that such action constitutes censorship and discrimination on the basis of content, viewpoint, and religion. Yet a quick glance at this case’s caption reveals a surprise: Plaintiffs have not named the companies as Defendants. Instead, they have sued only the United States Attorney General, alleging that a provision in a federal statute — § 230 of the Communications Decency Act — enables the companies’ censorship and discrimination and violates the First Amendment.
And nails this point home again and again.
These and other actions led Plaintiffs to conclude that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter employ their company policies to suppress the speech and activities of disfavored speakers, including Plaintiffs, and to discriminate against “certain political parties, national origins, and religions,” particularly Israelis, Jews, and conservatives. Yet Plaintiffs have not brought this suit against the social-media companies. Instead, in July 2016, they named the United States Attorney General as the lone Defendant.
The court also addresses Geller’s convoluted argument that the DOJ — via Section 230 of the CDA — is somehow responsible for content moderation efforts performed by Facebook and others.
[Section 230] does not grant the Attorney General any power to impose criminal or civil liability, nor to direct or forbid interactive computer services to take any particular action vis-à-vis third-party users, including deleting objectionable content. Indeed, § 230 affords Defendant no role — enforcement or otherwise — of any kind, nor does it delegate any enforcement role to any federal agency or federal official.
This brings it back to a question of standing: Geller and her co-plaintiffs have none. The attorney general has no power to enforce Section 230. Even if the court were to grant Geller standing and find her arguments actionable, the remedy Geller seeks would have zero effect on the actions she’s suing over.
It would not constrain Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube from invoking § 230 as a defense to any state-law discrimination or censorship action brought against them by Plaintiffs, nor would it restore Plaintiffs’ removed content or legally prevent the social-media platforms from deleting or otherwise editing Plaintiffs’ content in the future.
And the court isn’t interested in handing down orders based on Geller’s theoretic extrapolations.
Plaintiffs’ argument rests on the entirely speculative implication that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would voluntarily change course and permit Plaintiffs’ censored content to stand were the Attorney General to declare § 230 unconstitutional. Indeed, even absent the affirmative defense supplied by § 230, the private social-media companies could argue that they cannot be compelled to publish a particular message.
Which brings this all back to the original — and strongest — point of this decision: lawsuits are generally more successful when they target the right defendants. [emphasis in the original]
If Plaintiffs remain unhappy with the companies’ content decisions, they can sue them and attempt to defeat any § 230 defense that is raised — e.g., by invoking the same constitutional arguments offered here.
Section 230 has been under attack recently and courts have, unfortunately, been humoring some novel legal theories. Fortunately, Geller’s legal theories are far too novel to be entertained by this court. Sure, it’s an attack on Section 230 protections, but only in the most abstract definition of the word. Geller’s case never had a chance, and she seems — at least to date — unwilling to go directly at the social media platforms she feels have wronged her. But she’s free to spend her money fighting pointless legal battles, just like an other US citizen.