Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
In Progress Contracts Expression
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The United States District Court Northern District of California dismissed a First Amendment claim against Facebook. The plaintiff, Harry Williby, claimed Facebook violated his First Amendment rights by blocking his posts concerning its hate speech policy. The Court held that Facebook, as a private entity that provides a forum for speech and does not engage in an activity that the government traditionally and exclusively performs, therefore did not qualify as a state actor subject to First Amendment constraints.
Harry Williby, a Facebook user, and the editor of “The Attorney Depot” and “Corrupt Justice” Facebook pages. Williby through both pages tracked and publicized incidents of corruption in state and federal government, and posted daily events about politics, elections, trials, and other general news. On October 3, 2018, Williby posted a news story concerning an incident with a New York City Police Officer. On October 4, 2018, Facebook temporarily blocked Williby for 30 days. Williby filed a complaint under Proceedings in Forma Pauperis [28 U.S. Code § 1915] which was dismissed with leave to amend. Williby filed an amended complaint under Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights [42 U.S.C. § 1983], which sought to state a First Amendment claim against Facebook for blocking his posts for allegedly violating the platform’s hate speech standards.
Judge James Donato of the United States District Court Northern District of California delivered the judgment on 18 June 2019. The central issue for the Court was to examine whether Facebook, as a private entity that operates a public forum for speech, was bound by the First Amendment’s speech guarantees.
Williby contended that Facebook is a private entity that operates a public forum for speech and consequently is bound by the First Amendment’s speech guarantees. The Court disregarded Williby’s contention and after relying on Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck(2019) observed that Williby’s claim could not be overcome as the First Amendment only applies to governmental abridgments of speech and not to alleged abridgments by private companies like Facebook [p. 1].
The Court observed that Williby’s effort to find a “First Amendment hook in a state actor theory is not tenable”. The Court highlighted that Facebook was a private entity that provided a forum for speech and did not engage in an activity that the government has traditionally and exclusively performed. Thus, the Court deemed that the platform did not qualify as a state actor subject to First Amendment constraints. Moreover, the Court stressed that as a private entity, Facebook was entitled to exercise editorial discretion over the speech and speakers in its forum [p. 2].
Since no further amendment could remedy such a predicament, the Court dismissed the amended complaint concerning the federal claim with prejudice.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In the decision, the Court reiterated the lack of standing of First Amendment claims against private companies like Facebook. Notwithstanding, the widespread use of social media platforms and their growing role in public discourse, considering platforms as private companies entails that they legally establish regulations and guidelines within their communities, including censorship of content or banning users without any external accountability procedure.
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