California Appeals Court Says Section 230 Immunizes Twitter From Banned User's Lawsuit
from the being-shown-the-exit-is-not-a-breach-of-contract dept
Back in 2019, a California court tossed a lawsuit brought by a self-described feminist who had her Twitter account banned following some posts targeting transgender people. Meghan Murphy tweeted enlightening things like “men aren’t women tho” and “how are transwomen not men?” She also “deadnamed” transsexuals, identifying them using their former gender/names, something Twitter’s rules explicitly prohibit.
The court didn’t care much for Murphy’s proposed class action lawsuit, pointing out that Twitter is free to remove users and content for any and all reasons, even reasons it hadn’t yet added to its official list of rules. (The deadname prohibition came after Murphy’s account was permanently suspended.) This may seem unfair, but that’s the rules people agree to when using a platform provided by others.
Beyond that, there’s Section 230, which shields Twitter from exactly these kinds of lawsuits. The court pointed out Twitter’s editorial decisions (i.e., the removing of her account and its content) do not remove the platform’s Section 230 protections. In fact — contrary to inexplicably popular belief — Section 230 of the CDA expressly provides for good faith moderation efforts and does not limit them to removing only illegal or illicit content.
The court tossed the lawsuit and Murphy appealed. Murphy’s second pass doesn’t go any better than her first. And, again, it’s Section 230 that’s instrumental to this second dismissal. From the decision [PDF]:
Under section 230, interactive computer service providers have broad immunity from liability for traditional editorial functions undertaken by publishers—such as decisions whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content created by third parties. Because each of Murphy’s causes of action seek to hold Twitter liable for its editorial decisions to block content she and others created from appearing on its platform, we conclude Murphy’s suit is barred by the broad immunity conferred by the CDA.
The court notes Murphy’s attempt to route around Section 230 by claiming this is about broken contracts (the numerous changes made to Twitter’s Rules over the years, as well as its promise of 30-day notice prior to permanent suspension of accounts). The court also notes it’s not going to entertain a bunch of not-so-clever bullshit clearly intended to keep the court from discussing Section 230 immunity.
Murphy takes issue with both the second and third prongs of the section 230 test as they relate to her claims. She contends section 230(c)(1) cannot apply in this case because the “only information at issue is Twitter’s own promises,” not “ ‘information provided by another content provider,’ ” and because she seeks to treat Twitter not as a publisher of information provided by others, but as a promisor or party to a contract.
In assessing whether a claim treats a provider as a publisher or speaker of user-generated content, however, courts focus not on the name of the cause of action, but whether the plaintiff’s claim requires the court to treat the defendant as the publisher or speaker of information created by another. (Barnes, supra, 570 F.3d at pp. 1101–1102; Cross, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 207.) This test prevents plaintiffs from avoiding the broad immunity of section 230 through the “ ‘ “creative” pleading’ of barred claims” or using “litigation strategy . . . to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly.”
In a footnote, the court points out that it sees through Murphy’s attempted workaround because, well, it’s so transparent. If there was a serious breach of contract, there’d be some cognizable injury to be addressed. There’s nothing of the sort in Murphy’s allegations.
Although Murphy also points to the allegations that Twitter failed to give her 30 days’ notice of the changes to the Hateful Conduct Policy and that Twitter applied its new policy retroactively as breaches of clear and well-defined promises, the gravamen of each of her causes of action concerns Twitter’s editorial decisions not to publish content—as reflected by the fact that she alleges no specific injury from the alleged notice and retroactivity violations but complains instead of the harm caused by Twitter’s ban on her and others’ free speech rights.
And precedent backs the application of Section 230 to this case — which actually deals with Twitter’s removal of a user’s account and content, rather than a breach of contract. Twitter made no promises it would keep users and their accounts alive unless specific things happened. Instead, it retained its right to refuse service to users, just like pretty much any other private business in the nation.
Here, Murphy’s allegations that Twitter “enforced its Hateful Conduct Policy in a discriminatory and targeted manner” against Murphy and others by removing her tweets and suspending her account amount to attacks on Twitter’s interpretation and enforcement of its own general policies rather than breach of a specific promise.
Twitter has no contractual obligation to continue to do business with Meghan Murphy. And its decision to end this relationship is immunized from legal liability by Section 230 of the CDA. Murphy’s case is dismissed for the second time and Twitter will be allowed to recover its legal costs for defending itself from this bad faith lawsuit. Murphy can always try this again in federal court, but she’s not going to get any further doing that. She’s only going to keep blowing her own money on bad litigation.