Facebook Sued Over Private Facebook Group–Finkel v. Facebook

By Eric Goldman

Finkel v. Facebook, Inc., 102578-09 (N.Y. Supreme Ct. complaint filed Feb. 24, 2009).

A New York teenager has sued Facebook and four Facebook users (plus their parents) for allegedly defamatory content posted in a private Facebook group called “90 Cents Short of a Dollar.”

This case fits neatly with other legal battles over “cyber-bullying” (whatever that means), such as the AutoAdmit lawsuits, the Sandler case and the Lori Drew case. (For another recent and troubling example of cyber-bullying that I read just this morning, see Wolfe v. Fayetteville, Arkansas School Dist., 2009 WL 485400 (W.D. Ark. Feb. 26, 2009)).

In this case, the plaintiff’s school peers said some not-nice things about her in a private Facebook page. The Newsday article has some more color about the sour relationships between Finkel and the defendants. The plaintiff claims that the posts meant that “the plaintiff was a woman of dubious morals, dubious sexual character, having engaged in bestiality, an ‘I V drug user’ as well as having contracted the H.I.V. virus and AIDS.”

With respect to the claim against Facebook, this lawsuit is unquestionably DOA. Frankly, I’m not sure why the plaintiff bothered to sue Facebook. Facebook is completely immunized per 47 USC 230, and this should be an easy dismissal. The complaint didn’t even try to do anything fancy to get around 230; in fact, the complaint alleges that Facebook “published” the content, the absolutely wrong allegation to make if you’re trying to bypass 230. I think it significantly detracts from the sympathy we might otherwise feel for plaintiff for her to have futilely dragged Facebook into the lawsuit. And, it ensures there will be at least one aggressive defendant in the lawsuit.

With respect to the school peers’ liability, this case raises some interesting and complex questions. First, and most obviously, how did the plaintiff get a copy of the private group’s postings? This reminds me a little of the Washingtonienne case, although access to Cutler’s blog wasn’t technologically restricted like it was in Facebook.

Side note: the republication of the private group’s posts in this complaint reminds us once again that we always have to be prepared for our digital words to show up on the front page of a national newspaper. In particular, including the transcript to the complaint without a protective order was an aggressive move; I suspect other people reading the transcript for the first time will not be happy.

Second, there were only 6 group members listed on the exhibit, which means the total universe of listeners for any defamatory statement was 5 other folks (the person posting the statement doesn’t count). This may severely circumscribe any damages. Third, given that this group of 6 presumably represented a social clique with its own norms and mores, it’s entirely possible that the small universe of readers completely understood that superficially factual statements weren’t really factual and were never intended to be. In this respect, I’m reminded a little of the DiMeo v. Max case, where the judge adjusted the evaluative standards to reflect the fact that message boards fostered a laxer conversation, and readers understood that. A quick perusal of the posts suggests that all of them clearly were utter nonsense and, I suspect, fully understood by all readers to be inane and meaningless chatter. Finally, the posts apparently never referred to the plaintiff by name, although this may be irrelevant if everyone knew who was being discussed.

The lawsuit also goes after the students’ parents. Among other things, to try to establish liability, the complaint alleges that the parents negligently supervised their children. I’d gladly write a $100 check today if the plaintiff or her lawyers could articulate a foolproof way that parents can use to prevent high schoolers from doing stupid things on Facebook (without denying them access to Facebook altogether).

From my perspective, going to court over this matter was not a good decision. Nevertheless, I remain troubled by the examples of mean behavior among students that I’m seeing in the alerts I’m getting. For example, the Wolfe and Sandler cases I mention above are absolutely horrifying. Even though I graduated high school nearly 25 years ago, reading about meanness among high schoolers still gives me the shakes, reminding me how bad high school can be! And it weighs heavily on my mind as a parent. However, I can’t imagine any legal solution that will make people be less mean to each other.