No, You Can't Sue Grindr Because It Hooked You Up With A 13-Year-Old For Sex

from the take-responsibility-for-your-own-actions dept

We've discussed the importance of Section 230 of the CDA many times here on Techdirt, and once again it's being used to stop someone from trying to blame an internet service for someone's own actions. In this case, the app Grindr. Through a somewhat complicated set of details, a threesome was organized via Grindr's GrindrX service, with one of the participants being a 13-year-old boy. One of the two adult men who took part in the threesome, William Sapanaro Jr., was arrested and "charged with sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the aforementioned sexual encounter." He's still facing a long prison sentence. In response, Sapanaro then sought to sue Grindr for facilitating the hookup, pointing out that the service had terms of service that required participants to be of age.

Thankfully, the court quickly got this right, tossing out the lawsuit and noting that Grindr is protected by Section 230 of the CDA, and cannot be held liable for the actions of its users.
For the reasons set forth below, the Court holds that Plaintiff’s claim is barred by the Communications Decency Act. Furthermore, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s claims of negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress fail as a matter of law. Plaintiff’s complaint will be dismissed with prejudice.
The court cites multiple CDA 230 decisions that highlight how the immunity from liability clearly applies here. Also, it rejects Sapanaro's attempt to point to the famous "roommates.com" ruling. That was one of the very rare cases where a court rejected a CDA 230 defense, arguing that because Roommates.com actively asked people for preferences related to race, it violated fair housing laws. We were worried about that chipping away of Section 230 at the time. Indeed, since then, almost everyone looking to ignore Section 230 points to the Roommates case in their lawsuits. But, thankfully, almost every court ruling that discusses Roommates.com points out why it doesn't apply -- and this is yet another case where that's true (the court refers to that case as "Fair Housing" after the plaintiff, rather than the defendant Roommates.com):
The Court does not find the comparison to Fair Housing persuasive. Even assuming Plaintiff’s factual assertions to be true, as the Court must, the questions that Defendant poses to its subscribers when creating a profile substantively differ from those posed by the defendant in Fair Housing in one significant respect: they do not develop content that facially violates a state or federal statute. Defendant’s online questionnaire asks users to enter information about themselves, but these questions are facially benign. Plaintiff does not allege – nor does the Court find – that Defendants’ questionnaire solicits from users information that is illegal.

This distinction is readily apparent in Fair Housing. There, the Court specifically noted that “[a] dating website that requires users to enter their sex, race, religion and marital status through drop-down menus . . . does not contribute to any alleged illegality,” since “[i]t is perfectly legal to discriminate along those lines in dating, and thus there can be no claim based solely on the content of these questions.” ... Similarly, in this case, Defendant merely “provid[ed] neutral tools to carry out what may be unlawful or illicit [conduct]”; under Fair Housing, such conduct does not amount to “development” under section 230 of the CDA.
The court also laughs off the argument that CDA 230 was designed to be narrowly interpreted. We now have many, many years of rulings that say otherwise, so that was clearly a non-starter. Finally, the court rightly notes that holding sites liable for what users say or do would clearly chill free speech:
Courts have promulgated Congress’s intent by applying CDA immunity according to its own clear terms.... This Court must do the same, and it is not this Court’s function or role to substitute its judgment for the policy choices made by Congress in promoting communications on the internet. Holding interactive service providers liable for third-party communications would have chilling implications for free speech on the internet. Specifically, if social network hosts are faced with liability every time third-party communications on their networks result in harm, they are left with two extreme courses of action if they wish to ensure insulation from liability: either over-police their networks, taking down communications that might ultimately be harmless; or, strip users of the ability to post communications altogether.
It's good to see yet another clean Section 230 win -- and it's kind of crazy that these kinds of cases are still being brought.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 9:04am

    "No, your Honor, I just realized he was 13 after the coitus when I accidentally saw his id. His profile stated he was 54 and I was totally fooled. Who wouldn't be?" - defendant

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:00am

      ok, but...

      OK, tangential to the story here, and I'm not gonna stick up for the guy.

      But what is the reasonable way to prevent this situation?
      Are the parties involved supposed to validate one another's ID?
      What if the kid is mature for his age?
      Let's say he's finished puberty, 6 feet tall with a full beard and deep voice.

      Just take a minute to put aside your prejudice against pedophiles or grindr users, or whatever. The kid is pretending to be a consenting adult, he's actively lying about his age, but it's the adult that takes the rap.

      Maybe you can feel a little sympathy for the perp?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:10am

        Re: ok, but...

        Knew an early developer here who was about 6 feet when she was 11. You still would not have mistaken her "safely" for 18 when she was 13 even though you'd have bought 16.

        The laws being what they are, you are stupid not asking for id when indulging in matters where the age of consent as well as the threshold for avoiding really awful trouble is at 18 when in doubt.

        Naturally, this does not absolve the boy from being a total shithead. But at 13, having the wits about not being a shithead is not a legal requirement. Which again makes it a good idea for others to refuse hot fun without a convincing show of age.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Mason Wheeler (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:39am

          Re: Re: ok, but...

          A friend of mine was a bit of an early bloomer as well. She didn't grow to 6' or anything, but she certainly developed early on.

          She told me how one time, when she was 13, she went to visit her big sister at college. They were hanging out with a few of her sister's friends, and some of the guys were hitting on her. After it happened a few times, the sister was all "hey guys, knock it off! How old do you think she is?" And most of them seemed to seriously think she was 16-18. (Thankfully, they all backed off--with a fair amount of shock and disbelief--when told she was 13.) And knowing her, I could totally believe it.

          So yeah, it can happen. Though on the other hand, I've never met a guy like that.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Chronno S. Trigger (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:50am

            Re: Re: Re: ok, but...

            Where I was growing up there wasn't really a rule about carding. Most places didn't card if you looked over 21. I went to high school (so 18 and under) with a few people, both men and women, who bought beer thanks to this little oversight. The general rule now is you have to look over 35 or you get carded.

            So yeah, vary possible.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Manabi (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:58am

          Re: Re: ok, but...

          Asking for an ID won't save you either. I remember a case, I believe it was in England, where a girl under legal age had lied to a guy and showed him a fake ID to prove she was the age she claimed. He still ended up charged and convicted over it.

          And yes, some preteens/teens who mature early do look like adults. Some look like a cross between a child and an adult (usually the face looks more childish, but body is mature). Sometimes you really can't tell by looking at them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            kog999, 19 Mar 2015 @ 11:13am

            Re: Re: Re: ok, but...

            If i remember right the guy was offered a plea deal but turned it down because he though as soon as the judge heard the facts he would be let go. The girl also testified in his defense saying yes i lied and gave a fake ID. Guy was still convicted.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Adam (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 11:03am

        Re: ok, but...

        Depends on your location really. North Carolina, USA, age of consent: 16. If she/he lies and underage. No excuse. South Carolina, USA, age of consent: 16. If she/he lies and underage, it's valid defense if you can prove it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        orbitalinsertion (profile), 20 Mar 2015 @ 11:31am

        Re: ok, but...

        This is the same as for a world in which Grindr does not exist. Sometimes one is fooled, and the law doesn't like to take that into account, but also people like to pretend they are fooled when they are not. It's a grey area from an outside viewpoint. (Excepting cases where the minor is very clearly not of legal age.) But yes, if the person looks a little young, curb your hormones for a moment and either check or decline.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    AricTheRed (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 9:49am

    He shoulda hired the 13 year olde as his lawyer

    The kid coulda used the Nah-ah tactic. Cause everyone knows if you're willing to say Nah-ah enough you always win.

    Go ahead and try it...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 9:54am

    Let me get this straight

    Grinder has a TOS that requires you to be of age to use the app. A 13yo kid violated those terms of service, and because Grindr had that TOS, its supposed to be liable for the kid's actions? I would think the purpose of the TOS is specificly to distance yourself from liability.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:38am

      Re: Let me get this straight

      "By having the TOS they admitted it was possible younger individuals might want to use the service. Why didn't they enforce their rules?"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 9:55am

    That kinda blows (no pun intended). I know some guys who got in trouble the same way when a girl told them they were over 18 but were not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DogBreath, 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:57am

      Re:

      A.K.A. Knoxville Courthouse Blues - Hank Williams, Jr.

      This should be required listening for all boys and men. Even if you don't like country music, you should hear the message and know the pitfalls.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JBDragon (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 11:47am

      Re:

      I think you should treat this as a ID check like in a store when it's questionable the person is 21 or over, or in this case 18 or over. Some people look younger then they are and others look older then they are. So if the person looks 10 years older or younger then 18 for a ID!!! Maybe it'll kill the mood, but better then jail.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 10:26am

    So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

    (Taking off from the last block quote.)

    Because in its interest. Everyone has a common law right to not be abused whether in person or typing on a web-site.

    Section 230 is mere statute (common law always trumps it) and in any event only applies when the platform is objectively neutral. Including behind the scenes. Here at Techdirt, it being a business, if Masnick uses his power as administrator / moderator and becomes a partisan to, say, exclude certain persons or aid in harassing them, then he'd lose all protections. -- More so, as are no written guidelines on acceptable comment here so one can't be in violation, and the fanboys get pretty vile and abusive yet Masnick never intervenes to even admonish them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 2:15pm

      Re: So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

      Section 230 is mere statute (common law always trumps it) and in any event only applies when the platform is objectively neutral.

      This is false.

      Here at Techdirt, it being a business, if Masnick uses his power as administrator / moderator and becomes a partisan to, say, exclude certain persons or aid in harassing them, then he'd lose all protections.

      Also false.

      100% false. In fact, CDA 230 makes it clear that the platform can do whatever moderation it wants and not lose liability. In fact, that was the original point of CDA 230 -- to *encourage* moderation in a way that would not rid a site of liability protections. Read 230(c)(2)(A) which says:

      "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected"

      So you're misinformed. It is not only for neutral parties, and voluntarily choosing to moderate does not shed anyone of Section 230 protections. At all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 5:38pm

      Re:

      As usual, you have no idea what you're talking about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gwiz (profile), 20 Mar 2015 @ 8:28am

      Re: So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

      Section 230 is mere statute (common law always trumps it)...

      Blue? That you?

      One would think you would learn from the hundred times I or someone else has corrected you concerning this incorrect notion that common law trumps statutory law. I guess not, huh?


      ....and the fanboys get pretty vile and abusive....

      Yep, that's our Blue alright.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        GEMont (profile), 21 Mar 2015 @ 6:18pm

        Re: Re: So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

        I warned you that mentioning the demon's name would likely cause the beast to re-manifest. Your bad. :)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Gwiz (profile), 21 Mar 2015 @ 7:20pm

          Re: Re: Re: So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

          I warned you that mentioning the demon's name would likely cause the beast to re-manifest. Your bad. :)

          Touché.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2015 @ 11:18am

    First of all why is a 13 yr old using Grindr?!? Go outside, hang with friends, play video games. There will be plenty of time for sex later on in life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.