Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Internet Law
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Plaintiff-Appellant Cl.G., on behalf of his minor son, C.G., appealed a district court’s dismissal of his case against Defendants-Appellees Cherry Creek School District (District or CCSD) and various employees for alleged constitutional violations stemming from C.G.’s suspension and expulsion from Cherry Creek High School (CCHS). In 2019, C.G. was off campus at a thrift store with three friends. He took a picture of his friends wearing wigs and hats, including “one hat that resembled a foreign military hat from the World War II period.” C.G. posted that picture on Snapchat and captioned it, “Me and the boys bout [sic] to exterminate the Jews.” C.G.’s post (the photo and caption) was part of a private “story,” visible only to Snapchat users connected with C.G. on that platform. Posts on a user’s Snapchat story are automatically deleted after 24 hours, but C.G. removed this post after a few hours. He then posted on his Snapchat story, “I’m sorry for that picture it was ment [sic] to be a joke.” One of C.G.’s Snapchat “friend[s]” took a photograph of the post before C.G. deleted it and showed it to her father. The father called the police, who visited C.G.’s house and found no threat. Referencing prior anti-Semitic activity and indicating that the post caused concern for many in the Jewish community, a CCHS parent emailed the school and community leaders about the post, leading to C.G.'s expulsion. Plaintiff filed suit claiming violations of C.G.'s constitutional rights. Defendants moved to dismiss, which was ultimately granted. On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the First Amendment limited school authority to regulate off-campus student speech, particularly speech unconnected with a school activity and not directed at the school or its specific members. Defendants maintained that C.G. was lawfully disciplined for what amounts to off-campus hate speech. According to Defendants, although originating off campus, C.G.’s speech still spread to the school community, disrupted the school’s learning environment, and interfered with the rights of other students to be free from harassment and receive an education. The Tenth Circuit determined Plaintiff properly pled that Defendants violated C.G.’s First Amendment rights by disciplining him for his post; the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s first claim was reversed in part. The Court affirmed dismissal of Plaintiff’s further facial challenges to CCSD’s policies. Questions of qualified and absolute immunity and Plaintiff’s conspiracy claim were remanded for further consideration. View "C1.G v. Siegfried, et al." on Justia Law

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Freed created a Facebook profile, limited to his “friends.” Eventually, he exceeded Facebook’s 5,000-friend limit on profiles and converted his profile to a “page,” which has unlimited “followers.” His page was public, anyone could “follow” it; for the page category, Freed chose “public figure.” Freed was appointed Port Huron’s city manager. He updated his Facebook page to reflect that title. In the “About” section, he described himself as “Daddy ... Husband ... and City Manager, Chief Administrative Officer for the citizens of Port Huron, MI.” Freed listed the Port Huron website as his page’s website, the city’s general email as his page’s contact information, and the City Hall address as his page’s address. Freed shared photos of family events, visits to local community events, and posts about administrative directives he issued as city manager. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he posted policies he initiated for Port Huron and news articles on public-health measures and statistics. Lindke responded with criticism. Freed deleted those comments and eventually “blocked” Lindke from the page.Lindke sued Freed under 42 U.S.C 1983, arguing that Freed violated his First Amendment rights. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Freed. Freed’s Facebook activity was not state action. The page neither derives from the duties of his office nor depends on his state authority. View "Lindke v. Freed" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (together, “NetChoice”)—are trade associations that represent internet and social-media companies. They sued the Florida officials charged with enforcing S.B. 7072 under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. They sought to enjoin enforcement of Sections 106.072 and 501.2041 on a number of grounds, including, that the law’s provisions (1) violate the social-media companies’ right to free speech under the First Amendment and (2) are preempted by federal law.   The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it preliminarily enjoined those provisions of S.B. 7072 that are substantially likely to violate the First Amendment. But the district court did abuse its discretion when it enjoined provisions of S.B. 7072 that aren’t likely unconstitutional.   The court reasoned that it is substantially likely that social-media companies—even the biggest ones—are “private actors” whose rights the First Amendment protects, that their so-called “content-moderation” decisions constitute protected exercises of editorial judgment and that the provisions of the new Florida law that restrict large platforms’ ability to engage in content moderation unconstitutionally burden that prerogative. The court further concluded that it is substantially likely that one of the law’s particularly onerous disclosure provisions—which would require covered platforms to provide a “thorough rationale” for each and every content-moderation decision they make—violates the First Amendment. However, because it is unlikely that the law’s remaining disclosure provisions violate the First Amendment, the companies are not entitled to preliminary injunctive relief with respect to them. View "NetChoice, LLC, et al. v. Attorney General, State of Florida, et al." on Justia Law

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Novak created “The City of Parma Police Department” Facebook account to exercise his “fundamental American right” of “[m]ocking our government officials.” He published posts “advertising” free abortions in a police van and a “Pedophile Reform event.” Some readers called the police station. Officers verified that the official page had not been hacked, then posted a notice on the Department’s page, confirming that it was the official account and warning that the fake page was “being investigated.” Novak copied that post onto his knockoff page. Officers asked Facebook to preserve all records related to the account and take down the page. Lieutenant Riley issued a press release and appeared on the nightly news. Novak deleted the page. The investigation continued. Officers got a search warrant for Facebook, discovered that Novak was the author, then obtained an arrest warrant and a search warrant based on an Ohio law that makes it illegal to use a computer to disrupt or impair police functions. Officers arrested Novak, searched his apartment, and seized his phone and laptop. He spent four days in jail before making bond.Indicted for disrupting police functions, Novak was acquitted. In Novak’s subsequent suit, 42 U.S.C. 1983, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The officers reasonably believed they were acting within the law. The officers could reasonably believe that some of Novak’s Facebook activity was not parody, not protected, and fair grounds for probable cause. View "Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio" on Justia Law

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Deborah Laufer was qualified as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and was a self-described ADA “tester.” In that capacity, she visited the Elk Run Inn’s online reservation system (“ORS”) to determine whether it complied with the ADA, though she had no intention to stay there. Laufer sued Randall and Cynthia Looper, the owners of the Elk Run Inn, alleging that the ORS lacked information about accessibility in violation of an ADA regulation. The district court dismissed Laufer’s complaint without prejudice for lack of Article III standing because she failed to allege that she suffered a concrete and particularized injury. Finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal. View "Laufer v. Looper, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Cheryl Thurston was blind and used screen reader software to access the Internet and read website content. Defendant-respondent Omni Hotels Management Corporation (Omni) operated hotels and resorts. In November 2016, Thurston initiated this action against Omni, alleging that its website was not fully accessible by the blind and the visually impaired, in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. By way of a special verdict, the jury rejected Thurston’s claim and found that she never intended to make a hotel reservation or ascertain Omni’s prices and accommodations for the purpose of making a hotel reservation. On appeal, Thurston contended the trial court erred as a matter of law: (1) by instructing the jury that her claim required a finding that she intended to make a hotel reservation; and (2) by including the word “purpose” in the special verdict form, which caused the jury to make a “factual finding as to [her] motivation for using or attempting to use [Omni’s] Website.” Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court. View "Thurston v. Omni Hotels Management Corporation" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of Coral Ridge's complaint alleging a defamation claim against SPLC and a religious discrimination claim against Amazon. Coral Ridge alleged that SPLC is an Alabama-based nonprofit organization that publishes a "Hate Map,"—a list of entities the organization has characterized as hate groups—on its website. After Coral Ridge applied to be an eligible charity for the AmazonSmile program, Amazon denied its application because Coral Ridge is listed on the Hate Map as being anti-LGBTQ.The court found that Coral Ridge has not adequately alleged a state law defamation claim and that its proposed interpretation of Title II would violate the First Amendment. The court concluded that the district court correctly dismissed the defamation claim on the ground that Coral Ridge did not sufficiently plead actual malice. The court explained that Coral Ridge did not sufficiently plead facts that give rise to a reasonable inference that SPLC actually entertained serious doubts as to the veracity of its hate group definition and that definition's application to Coral Ridge, or that SPLC was highly aware that the definition and its application was probably false. The court also concluded that the district court correctly found that Coral Ridge's interpretation of Title II would violate the First Amendment by essentially forcing Amazon to donate to organizations it does not support. In this case, Coral Ridge's proposed interpretation of Title II would infringe on Amazon's First Amendment right to engage in expressive conduct and would not further Title II's purpose. View "Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Second Circuit vacated its previous opinion and filed an amended opinion in its place.Plaintiff and Church United filed suit against Vimeo, alleging that the company discriminated against them by deleting Church United’s account from its online video hosting platform. Plaintiffs claimed that Vimeo discriminated against them based on sexual orientation and religion under federal and state law. The district court concluded that Vimeo deleted Church United's account because of its violation of one of Vimeo's published content policies barring the promotion of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) on its platform.The court agreed with the district court that Section 230(c)(2) of the Communications Decency Act protects Vimeo from this suit and that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for relief. In this case, plaintiffs argue that Vimeo demonstrated bad faith by discriminating against them based on their religion and sexual orientation, which they term "former" homosexuality; deleting Church United's entire account, as opposed to only the videos at issue; and permitting other videos with titles referring to homosexuality to remain on the website. However, the court concluded that plaintiffs' conclusory allegations are insufficient to raise a plausible inference of bad faith sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. The court explained that Vimeo removed plaintiffs' account for expressing pro-SOCE views which it in good faith considers objectionable, and plaintiffs, while implicitly acknowledging that their content violated Vimeo's Terms of Service, nevertheless ignored Vimeo's notice of violation, resulting in Vimeo deleting their account.Plaintiffs have also failed to state a claim under either the New York Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act or the California Unruh Act. Because plaintiffs make no allegation suggesting that Vimeo removed their content for any reason other than this violation of the Terms of Service, plaintiffs' allegations lack the substance required to support an inference of discriminatory intent. View "Domen v. Vimeo, Inc." on Justia Law

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Bebris sent child pornography over Facebook’s private user-to-user messaging system. Facebook licenses a “hashing” image recognition technology, PhotoDNA, developed by Microsoft. PhotoDNA provides the capability to scan images uploaded onto a company’s platform and compares the “hash” (or essence) of a photo with a database of known images of child pornography. Three of Bebris’s messages were flagged by PhotoDNA. Facebook employees reviewed the images and reported them to the CyberTipline of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as required by 18 U.S.C. 2258A(a), which then reported the images to Wisconsin law enforcement. Those officials obtained a warrant and searched Bebris’s residence, where they found a computer containing numerous child pornography files.Bebris, charged federally with possessing and distributing child pornography., argued that the evidence should be suppressed, contending that Facebook took on the role of a government agent (subject to Fourth Amendment requirements) by monitoring its platform for child pornography and reporting that content. The district court denied his Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17(a) subpoena seeking pre-trial testimony from a Facebook employee with knowledge of Facebook’s use of PhotoDNA.The Seventh Circuit affirmed his conviction. The subpoena sought cumulative testimony. The record included a written declaration from Microsoft and Facebook and live testimony from an executive at NCMEC, which administers the federal reporting system. Facebook did not act as a government agent in this case. View "United States v. Bebris" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and Church United filed suit against Vimeo, alleging that the company discriminated against them by deleting Church United’s account from its online video hosting platform. Plaintiffs claimed that Vimeo discriminated against them based on sexual orientation and religion under federal and state law. The district court concluded that Vimeo deleted Church United's account because of its violation of one of Vimeo's content policies barring the promotion of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) on its platform.The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' claims, agreeing with the district court that Section 230(c)(2) of the Communications Decency Act provides Vimeo with immunity from suit. The court concluded that, under Section 230(c)(2), Vimeo is free to restrict access to material that, in good faith, it finds objectionable. In this case, plaintiffs' conclusory allegations of bad faith do not survive the pleadings stage, especially when examined in the context of Section 230(c)(2). The court explained that Section 230(c)(2) does not require interactive service providers to use a particular method of content restriction, nor does it mandate perfect enforcement of a platform's content policies. Indeed, the fundamental purpose of Section 230(c)(2) is to provide platforms like Vimeo with the discretion to identify and remove what they consider objectionable content from their platforms without incurring liability for each decision. View "Domen v. Vimeo, Inc." on Justia Law