from the that’s-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
I just wrote about Utah’s ridiculously silly plans to sue every social media company for being dangerous to children, in which I pointed out that the actual research doesn’t support the underlying argument at all. But I forgot that a few weeks ago, Seattle’s public school district actually filed just such a lawsuit, suing basically every large social media company for being a “public nuisance.” The 91-page complaint is bad. Seattle taxpayers should be furious that their taxes, which are supposed to be paying for educating their children, are, instead, going to lawyers to file a lawsuit so ridiculous that it’s entirely possible the lawyers get sanctioned.
The lawsuit was filed against a variety of entities and subsidiaries, but basically boils down to suing Meta (over Facebook, Instagram), Google (over YouTube), Snapchat, and TikTok. Most of the actual lawsuit reads like any one of the many, many moral panic articles you read about how “social media is bad for you,” with extremely cherry-picked facts that are not actually supported by the data. Indeed, one might argue that the complaint itself, filed by Seattle Public Schools lawyer Gregory Narver and the local Seattle law firm of Keller Rohrback, is chock full of the very sort of misinformation that they so quickly wish to blame the social media companies for spreading.
First: as we’ve detailed, the actual evidence that social media is harming children basically… does not exist. Over and over again studies show a near total lack of evidence. Indeed, as recent studies have shown, the vast majority of children get value from social media. There are plenty of moral paniciky pieces from adults freaked out about what “the kids these days” are doing, but little evidence to support any of it. Indeed, the parents often seem to be driven into a moral panic fury by… misinformation they (the adults) encountered on social media.
The school’s lawsuit reads like one giant aggregation of basically all of these moral panic stories. First, it notes that the kids these days, they use social media a lot. Which, well, duh. But, honestly, when you look at the details it suggests they’re mostly using them for entertainment, meaning that it hearkens back to previous moral panics about every new form of entertainment from books, to TV, to movies, etc. And, even then, none of this even looks that bad? The complaint argues that this chart is “alarming,” but if you asked kids about how much TV they watched a couple decades ago, I’m guessing it would be similar to what is currently noted about YouTube and TikTok (and note that others like Facebook/Instagram don’t seem to get that much use at all according to this chart, but are still being sued):
There’s a whole section claiming to show that “research has confirmed the harmful effects” of social media on youth, but that’s false. It’s literally misinformation. It cherry-picks a few studies, nearly all of which are by a single researcher, and ignores the piles upon piles of research suggesting otherwise. Hell, even the graphic above that it uses to show the “alarming” addition to social media is from Pew Research Center… the organization that just released a massive study about how social media has made life better for teens. Somehow, the Seattle Public Schools forgot to include that one. I wonder why?
Honestly, the best way to think about this lawsuit is that it is the Seattle Public School system publicly admitting that they’re terrible educators. While it’s clear that there are some kids who end up having problems exacerbated by social media, one of the best ways to deal with that is through good education. Teaching kids how to use social media properly, how to be a good digital citizen, how to have better media literacy for things they find on social media… these are all the kinds of things that a good school district builds into its curriculum.
This lawsuit is effectively the Seattle Public School system publicly stating “we’re terrible at our job, we have not prepared your kids for the real world, and therefore, we need to sue the media apps and services they use, because we failed in our job.” It’s not a good look. And, again, if I were a Seattle taxpayer — and especially if I were a Seattle taxpayer with kids in the Seattle public school district — I would be furious.
The complaint repeatedly points out that the various social media platforms have been marketed to kids, which, um, yes? That doesn’t make it against the law. While the lawsuit mentions COPPA, the law designed to protect kids, it’s not making a COPPA claim (which it can’t make anyway). Instead, it’s just a bunch of blind conjectures, leading to a laughably weak “public nuisance” claim.
Pursuant to RCW 7.48.010, an actionable nuisance is defined as, inter alia,
“whatever is injurious to health or indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the
free use of property, so as to essentially interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of the life and
Specifically, a “[n]uisance consists in unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to
perform a duty, which act or omission either annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose,
health or safety of others, offends decency . . . or in any way renders other persons insecure in
life, or in the use of property.”
Under Washington law, conduct that substantially and/or unreasonably interferes
with the Plaintiff’s use of its property is a nuisance even if it would otherwise be lawful.
Pursuant to RCW 7.48.130, “[a] public nuisance is one which affects equally the
rights of an entire community or neighborhood, although the extent of the damage may be
Defendants have created a mental health crisis in Seattle Public Schools, injuring
the public health and safety in Plaintiff’s community and interfering with the operations, use, and
enjoyment of the property of Seattle Public Schools
Employees and patrons, including students, of Seattle Public Schools have a right
to be free from conduct that endangers their health and safety. Yet Defendants have engaged in
conduct which endangers or injures the health and safety of the employees and students of
Seattle Public Schools by designing, marketing, and operating their respective social media
platforms for use by students in Seattle Public Schools and in a manner that substantially
interferes with the functions and operations of Seattle Public Schools and impacts the public
health, safety, and welfare of the Seattle Public Schools community
This reads just as any similar moral panic complaint would have read against older technologies. Imagine schools in the 1950s suing television or schools in the 1920s suing radios. Or schools in the 19th century suing book publishers for early pulp novels.
For what it’s worth, the school district also tries (and, frankly, fails) to take on Section 230 head on, claiming that it is “no shield.”
Plaintiff anticipates that Defendants will raise section 230 of the Communications
Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1), as a shield for their conduct. But section 230 is no shield for
Defendants’ own acts in designing, marketing, and operating social media platforms that are
harmful to youth.
Section 230 does not shield Defendants’ conduct because, among other
considerations: (1) Defendants are liable for their own affirmative conduct in recommending and
promoting harmful content to youth; (2) Defendants are liable for their own actions designing
and marketing their social media platforms in a way that causes harm; (3) Defendants are liable
for the content they create that causes harm; and (4) Defendants are liable for distributing,
delivering, and/or transmitting material that they know or have reason to know is harmful,
unlawful, and/or tortious.
Except that, as we and many others explained in our briefs in the Supreme Court’s Gonzalez case, that’s all nonsense. All of them are still attempting to hold companies liable for the speech of users. None of the actual complaints are about actions by the companies, but rather how they don’t like the fact that the expression of these sites users are (the school district misleadingly claims) harmful to the kids in their schools.
First, Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have
said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct. As described above,
Defendants affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as proanorexia and eating disorder content. Recommendation and promotion of damaging material is
not a traditional editorial function and seeking to hold Defendants liable for these actions is not
seeking to hold them liable as a publisher or speaker of third party-content.
Yes, but recommending and promoting content is 1st Amendment protected speech. They can’t be sued for that. And, it’s not the “recommendation” that they’re really claiming is harmful, but the speech that is being recommended which (again) is protected by Section 230.
Second, Plaintiff’s claims arise from Defendants’ status as designers and
marketers of dangerous social media platforms that have injured the health, comfort, and repose
of its community. The nature of Defendants’ platforms centers around Defendants’ use of
algorithms and other designs features that encourage users to spend the maximum amount of
time on their platforms—not on particular third party content.
One could just as reasonably argue that the harm actually arises from the Seattle Public School system’s apparently total inability to properly prepare the children in their care for modern communications and entertainment systems. This entire lawsuit seems like the school district foisting the blame for their own failings on a convenient scapegoat.
There’s a lot more nonsense in the lawsuit, but hopefully the court quickly recognizes how ridiculous this is and tosses it out. Of course, if the Supreme Court screws up everything with a bad ruling in the Gonzalez case, well, then this lawsuit should give everyone pretty clear warning of what’s to come: a whole slew of utterly vexatious, frivolous lawsuits against internet websites for any perceived “harm.”
The only real takeaways from this lawsuit should be (1) Seattle parents should be furious, (2) the Seattle Public School system seems to be admitting its terrible at preparing children for the real world, and (3) Section 230 remains hugely important in protecting websites against these kinds of frivolous SLAPP suits.
Filed Under: 1st amendment, free speech, public nuisance, recommendations, seattle, section 230, vexatious lawsuits
Companies: bytedance, facebook, google, instagram, meta, seattle public schools, snapchat, tiktok, youtube
Source : https://www.techdirt.com/2023/01/25/seattle-school-district-files-laughably-stupid-lawsuit-against-basically-every-social-media-company-for-being-a-public-nuisance/