Federal Court Dismisses Another Negligence Suit Against Online Gun Marketplace Armslist But Says Section 230 Doesn't Protect It
from the it's-a-win...-but-what-is-it-worth? dept
Two years ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a pretty important decision, only somewhat tempered by its limited jurisdiction. It decided Section 230 immunity applied to the buying and selling of guns via a third-party platform, Armslist.
Survivors of a mass shooting in Wisconsin tried to hold Armslist directly responsible for the criminal act, arguing that the site’s facilitation of sales that bypassed local regulations on gun sales (mainly background checks) allowed the shooter to arm himself illegally. The shooting may have been on the mass shooter, but Armslist was apparently an accomplice because its marketplace allowed someone who shouldn’t have had access to guns to acquire one.
The plaintiffs hoped to bypass Section 230 immunity with arguments that centered on negligence. The Copia Institute (a Mike Masnick joint) filed an amicus brief on behalf of Armslist, asking the court to reject arguments that would carve some very damaging holes in Section 230 protections.
The court found in favor of Armslist, specifically citing Section 230.
The court of appeals held that 47 U.S.C. § 230 (2018), the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, did not bar Daniel’s claims against Armslist for facilitating Radcliffe’s illegal purchase. We disagree, and conclude that § 230(c)(1) requires us to dismiss Daniel’s complaint against Armslist. Section 230(c)(1) prohibits claims that treat Armslist, an interactive computer service provider, as the publisher or speaker of information posted by a third party on its website. Because all of Daniel’s claims for relief require Armslist to be treated as the publisher or speaker of information posted by third parties on armslist.com, her claims are barred by § 230(c)(1). Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals, and affirm the circuit court’s dismissal of Daniel’s complaint.
Another court has found in favor of Armslist. And again, the case involves a tragedy: the killing of someone using a weapon purchased through Armslist. Unfortunately, the federal court handling this case says Section 230 has nothing to do with Armslist securing a dismissal. While it doesn’t weaken any Section 230 protections, it certainly doesn’t add anything either, ensuring lawsuits brought against third-party platforms will still have to pay to defend themselves from accusations that they’re culpable for the criminal actions of their users. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)
The plaintiff, Richard Webber, sued Armslist after a gun purchased on the site was used to murder his daughter. The underlying incident is horrific. This is from the Wisconsin federal court decision [PDF]:
As a result of Armslist’s design decisions and business practices, Plaintiff alleges, Schmidt’s estranged husband, who was prohibited from owning a firearm under Wis. Stat. §§ 941.29(1m)(g), 813.25 and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8), was able to purchase a firearm from a private seller who listed a firearm for purchase on Armslist.com. Shortly thereafter, Schmidt’s estranged husband used the firearm he purchased from the private seller to fatally shoot Schmidt after Schmidt had arrived at her mother’s house to drop off her three children. Schmidt’s estranged husband then committed suicide in the backyard of the house. Plaintiff alleges that, but for Armslist’s failure to enact adequate safeguards, and but for Armslist’s conscious decision to design Armslist.com in an irresponsible, unreasonable, and unlawful manner, Sara Schmidt’s estranged husband would not have been able to purchase the firearm that he used to kill her.
From that tragedy arose a list of alleged violations and harms, including common law negligence, civil conspiracy, and wrongful death — all pursued under Wisconsin state law but handled by a federal court.
After deciding it has jurisdiction to preside over state law claims, the court details why it thinks Section 230 does not apply to this case — one that involves a buyer and a seller utilizing the marketplace created by Armslist, but does not involve any direct action by Armslist.
In dismissing Armslist’s Section 230 immunity defense, the court cites not only Justice Clarence Thomas (who holds some… questionable… views on Section 230) but also quotes the Seventh Circuit’s misreading on how the “Good Samaritan” clause of the law has been applied by platforms.
But even setting aside the tricky task of discerning legislative intent, it is the text of the statute from which a court should draw its true meaning. Subsection (c) is entitled “protection for ‘good samaritan’ blocking and screening of offensive material.” As the Seventh Circuit has noted, this title is “hardly an apt description if its principal effect is to induce ISPs to do nothing about the distribution of indecent and offensive materials via their services.” Doe, 347 F.3d at 660. Furthermore, nothing in the text of § 230(c)(1) indicates an intent to provide sweeping immunity for providers or users of interactive computer services who face claims based on their own misconduct.
The “Good Samaritan” clause does not encourage a hands-off approach. It actually encourages vigorous moderation efforts by ensuring platforms cannot be sued for removing content platform owners find objectionable, rather than limiting themselves to clearly illegal content.
From these, it gets worse. The court decides this lawsuit isn’t about the action of two third parties who utilized a platform to perform an illegal gun sale. It says this is about Armslist being less than cautious about who it allows to utilize the service, shifting the culpability from the murderer and the party closest to the act of murder (the person who sold him the gun) one more step up the chain to the platform that merely allowed people to sell and buy guns.
Even if § 230 applies to this type of case, Plaintiff’s claims do not seek to treat Defendants as the “publisher or speaker” of the post in question. Here, Plaintiff seeks to hold Defendants liable for their “role in developing or co-developing [their] own content.” Specifically, Plaintiff faults Defendants for failing to prohibit criminals from accessing or buying firearms through Armslist.com; actively encouraging, assisting, and facilitating illegal firearms transactions through their various design decisions; failing to require greater details from users, such as providing credit-card verified evidence of users’ identities; failing to require that sellers certify under oath that they are legal purchasers; and failing to provide regularly updated information regarding applicable firearms laws to its users, among many other things. In essence, the complaint “focuses primarily on Armslist’s own conduct in creating the high-risk gun market and its dangerous features,” not on the post in question. This type of claim, then, does not seek to treat Defendants as the “publisher or speaker” of the post that led to Schmidt’s killer obtaining a firearm; rather, it seeks to hold Defendants liable for their own misconduct in negligently and recklessly creating a service that facilitates the illegal sale of firearms. 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). For these reasons, the Court concludes that § 230 does not immunize Defendants from liability in this case.
But having successfully dodged Section 230 immunity isn’t enough to find Armslist culpable for the actions of a person who purchased a gun through the site. There’s nothing that connects the violent act to Armslist other than the weapon used to commit it. And, as the court points out, if it wasn’t a gun purchased on Armslist, it might have been a gun purchased elsewhere… or any weapon at all, given the facts of this case.
It is clear from the complaint that Schmidt was shot and killed by her estranged husband, not Defendants, with a handgun he purchased from another party, again not Defendants. Based on the facts alleged, there is no reason to believe that even if Schmidt’s estranged husband had not purchased a gun from a person who posted an advertisement on the Armslist website, Schmidt would still be alive. Armslist is hardly the only source of guns in this country, and one does not even need a gun to take another person’s life. Schmidt was killed by a person so determined to take her life, so consumed by hatred, that he was even willing to take his own. The likelihood that such a person would have found another source from which to obtain a firearm or another way to take Schmidt’s life is more plausible than Plaintiff’s claim that she would still be alive. Absent cause, Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Defendants fails.
Armslist escapes. But not by much. And the decision doesn’t bolster Section 230 protections. Instead, it encourages litigants to pursue esoteric claims in hopes of bypassing immunity, rather than be forced to confront the fact they’re seeking to hold a platform responsible for the violent acts of its users. That fact alone should have given Section 230 immunity better consideration than it received here. And it’s pretty disheartening to hear federal courts quoting Justice Clarence Thomas’ unhinged (but published) dissenting rants about a law he clearly doesn’t respect, much less understand.