Young v. Facebook, Inc.: District Court Dismisses Facebook User’s Claims that Account Termination Violated First and Fourteenth Amendments and Various State Laws

Digest Commentary First Amendment

Young v. Facebook, Inc., 5:10-cv-03579-JF/PVT (N.D. Cal. Oct. 25, 2010)

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On October 25, 2010, the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California granted Facebook’s motion to dismiss Karen Beth Young’s complaint that, in terminating her account, Facebook violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments as well as state contract and tort law, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court has granted Young a thirty-day period during which she may file an amended complaint.

With respect to the claim that Facebook deprived Young of equal protection by failing to accommodate her need for human interaction (resulting from bi-polar disorder), the court held that because Young failed to allege a deprivation of rights “under color of state law,” she has not stated a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In so holding, the court noted that the simple existence of contracts and relationships between Facebook and the government are insufficient to establish a claim under § 1983. Young, the court suggests, would have to show some nexus between those specific contracts and the alleged rights violations or, if certain Facebook activities amounted to state action, a causal relationship between those activities and the injuries suffered.

With respect to the claims for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, negligence, and fraud, the court held that Young failed to state a claim on all four counts due to the absence of applicable contractual obligations on Facebook’s part, an explicit disclaimer in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities that released responsibility for safety from third party conduct, and a lack of specificity in Young’s allegations. In addition to the specific shortcomings of Young’s pleading in this case, the court referred to the policy concerns manifested in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which severely restricts the liability of interactive computer service providers for content posted by third parties.

A brief summary of the claims and bases for dismissal can be found in Evan Brown’s article on the Internet Cases blog. Eric Goldman provides an additional overview of the court’s conclusions and takes issue with the court’s concession that, had Young argued that there was a bad faith or arbitrary cancellation of her account, this could potentially constitute a violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Plaintiff Karen Beth Young created a personal Facebook account in February 2010. Her subsequent Facebook activities included creating several Facebook pages and sending friend requests to strangers whom she thought might be interested in cancer issues. At some point in the course of her Facebook use, Young voiced her opposition to a page praying for Barack Obama’s death. As a result of her comments, Young claims to have been the victim of discrimination, threats, and personal attacks, including an obscene modification of her profile picture. Shortly thereafter, in June, Young’s Facebook account was deactivated based on her alleged harassment or threats to other users. An email from Facebook described this type of harassing behavior as “sending friend requests to people she did not know, regularly contacting strangers, [or] soliciting others for dating or business purposes.” After a series of correspondences and a temporary reactivation of Young’s account, Facebook permanently deactivated it.

In dismissing Young’s claims, the court reasoned that the restrictions on user behavior included in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities do not create affirmative obligations on the part of Facebook. Additionally, the court held that the posted “Facebook Principles” should not be read to establish enforceable legal obligations. In making these determinations, the court cited Facebook’s safety disclaimer, which also served as the basis for the court’s finding of an absence of legal duty upon which a negligence claim could be made. The court also stressed the importance and policy concerns manifested in the Communications Decency Act (in particular, Section 230).

This case emphasizes the unique and expansive protections enjoyed by computer service providers. However, while the court found that the way in which Facebook terminated Young’s account did not breach the covenant of good faith or fair dealing because the termination procedure was set by the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, it seems to have kept open the possibility that arbitrary or capricious termination of an account could constitute actionable bad faith. If a court finds merit in a bad-faith claim, interactive service providers could see increased responsibility and a new burden to explain questionable or unjustified decisions.

Samantha Kuhn is a 2L at the Harvard Law School.