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Opinion No U.S. discrimination claims against Facebook for blocking ‘Sikhs for Justice’ page in India

The organization Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) has a Facebook page. Facebook allegedly blocked the page in India, and SFJ claims that it did so “on its own or on the behest of the Government of India,” “because of discrimination against Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s members on the grounds of race, religion, ancestry, and national origin.”

SFJ sued under federal and state public accommodation discrimination laws, but the district court in Sikhs for Justice, Inc. v. Facebook, Inc. (N.D. Cal. Nov. 13, 2015) rejected the claim. The federal 47 U.S.C. § 230 statute, the court concluded, generally immunizes online service providers from legal liability for their decisions as publishers — and the decision about what to publish and what not to publish on the Facebook site is one such decision:

Plaintiff seeks to hold Defendant liable for Defendant’s decision “whether to publish” third-party content…. Plaintiff argues that Defendant had a duty under Title II [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] not to discriminate against Plaintiff. However, the act that Defendant allegedly conducted in a discriminatory manner is the removal of the SFJ Page in India. “But removing content is something publishers do, and to impose liability on the basis of such conduct necessarily involves treating the liable party as a publisher.”

The court didn’t dispose of the state law claims, because it concluded that, once the federal claims were dismissed, it should no longer exercise jurisdiction about the purely state law matters. SFJ could thus go back to California court and raise its claims there; but I doubt it would fare any better in California court, since 47 U.S.C. § 230 also applies there, and California courts have generally read that statute as broadly as the federal courts have.

UPDATE: Note that, though the court didn’t expressly discuss this, 47 U.S.C. § 230 specifically protects online providers’ right to block material that they disapprove of. While (c)(1), the most often litigated provision, says,

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(c)(2) goes on to say,

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.