Global Freedom of Expression

Cox. v. Twitter

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    February 8, 2019
  • Outcome
    Motion Granted
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law
  • Themes
    Content Moderation, Hate Speech
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

On February 8th, 2019, the District Court for the District of South Carolina Division granted Twitter’s motion to dismiss an action filed by a Twitter user whose account was suspended after publishing a tweet criticizing Islam that allegedly violated the platform’s Hate Speech policy. The plaintiff, Mr. Cox, presented a pro se complaint (acting on his own behalf) seeking monetary damages and certain specified declaratory and/or injunctive relief for suspending his account. However, Twitter, in its motion to dismiss, argued the plaintiff’s failure to establish that he had suffered any damages as a result of any actions by the platform. In its decision, the Court determined that Twitter qualified for Section 230(c)(2)(A) of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) safe harbor since the platform conducted publishing activity. Thus, the Court determined Mr. Cox’s claims to hold Twitter liable for exercising its editorial judgment to suspend his account were barred under the CDA. 



In June 2018, Mr. Cox (the plaintiff) was notified that Twitter (the defendant) had suspended his account, citing a violation of Twitter’s Hate Speech policy without including what the plaintiff allegedly violated. The tweet that led to the suspension read as follows: “Islam is a Philosophy of Conquests wrapped in Religious Fantasy & uses Racism, Misogyny, Pedophilia, Mutilation, Torture, Authoritarianism, Homicide, Rape . . . Peaceful Muslims are Marginal Muslims who are Heretics & Hypocrites to Islam. Islam is . . .” [p.2]. 

According to Mr. Cox, he had requested clarification from the platform on the alleged offense multiple times; however, Twitter failed to provide any information regarding the alleged violation. 

The user further claimed that the defendant required him to delete the flagged content to regain access to his Twitter account, violating the Terms of Service Agreement between him and the platform in February 2012. 

Mr. Cox presented a pro se complaint, acting on his own behalf, seeking monetary damages and certain specified declaratory and/or injunctive relief. As a result, Twitter, in its motion to dismiss, argued that it was entitled to the dismissal of the case since the user claims were barred by the Communications Decency Act (C.D.A.) 47 U.S.C. § 230(c), by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and because the plaintiff’s complaint failed to allege that he had suffered any damages as a result of any actions by the platform. 

Decision Overview

The main issue for the Court to analyze in this case was if Twitter’s decision to suspend Mr. Cox’s account was protected under 230(c)(2)(A) of the CDA.

The Court first highlighted that Twitter requires users to abide by its “Terms of Service” and “Hate Speech” policy, both contained in the platform’s User Agreement. It noted that the Agreement allowed Twitter to suspend or terminate a user’s account or cease providing with all or part of the Services at any time, for any or no reason, including if it believed that the user had violated the Terms or the Twitter Rules.

The Court agreed with Twitter’s statement that it was immune from Mr. Cox’s claims, given that he sought to impose liability on the defendant for declining to publish content created by him. Specifically, the Court highlighted that such claims were banned under Section 230(c)(2)(A) of the CDA, which holds that providers of an interactive computer service, such as Twitter, shall not be held liable for actions voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider considers to be excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected. 

Further, the Court referred to the case of Doe v. MySpace, Inc. to underscore that interactive computer services act as “publishers” when screening or deleting content. Likewise, it explained that § 230(c)(1) applied to “any activity that can be boiled down to deciding whether to exclude material that third parties seek to post online” [p. 7].

The Court noted that Mr. Cox’s claim that the CDA did not protect Twitter since it was neither a publisher nor an editor was without merit. It referred to the case of Fields v. Twitter to remark that contrary to Mr. Cox’s assertion, “the decision to furnish an account, or prohibit a particular user from obtaining an account, is itself publishing activity” [p. 7]. Thus, the Court considered Mr. Cox’s claim to hold Twitter liable for exercising its editorial judgment to delete or suspend his account as a publisher was barred by § 230(c) of the CDA. 

The Court then held that “liberally construing Plaintiff’s allegations, he may instead be considered to be asserting a breach of contract claim, as he alleges that the [d]efendant requiring him to delete the flagged content to regain access to his Twitter account [was] a violation of the Terms of Service Agreement entered into between the [p]laintiff and the [d]efendant on or about February 2012” [p. 7]. In the Court’s opinion, the plain language of Twitter’s Terms of Service Agreement stated that by using the platform’s services, Mr. Cox had agreed to form a binding contract with Twitter. The Court stressed that even assuming Mr. Cox’s theory of liability was based on a breach of contract, Twitter reserved the right to remove content it deemed infringed its Agreement and to suspend or cease to provide the user with all or part of its Services. 

In the Court’s view, the platform’s actions were clear and, specifically, allowed by the terms of the User Agreement. Therefore, the District Court determined that Mr. Cox had failed to state a breach of contract claim in his complaint. Thus, considering the previous, the Court recommended that Twitter’s motion to dismiss be granted and that the case be dismissed.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

In holding that Twitter’s decision to suspend the user’s account fell within the protection of Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act, the Court precluded a policy based on possibly harmful content limiting the dissemination of free speech. Although the decision ultimately protects a legitimate limit on free speech, the Court focused its analysis on the contractual relationship between the parties rather than explaining the impact of the content on free speech.


Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 420 (5th Cir. 2008)
  • U.S., Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc., 570 F.3d 1096 (2009)
  • U.S., Fair Hous. Council v., LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008)
  • U.S., Fields v. Twitter, Case No. 16-cv-00213-WHO (2016).
  • U.S, Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997)
  • U.S., Jane Doe No. 1 v., LLC, 817 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 2016)
  • U.S., Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2003)

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

Official Case Documents

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