Facebook Sued by Law Student for Deleting Posts Naming Ukraine Whistleblower

Cameron L. Atkinson is suing Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg in Connecticut federal court for violations of the First Amendment, the Communications Decency Act, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, statutory fraud, theft, and the implied warranty of fair dealing (Atkinson v. Facebook, Inc. et al 3:19-cv-01785). Atkinson is currently a third-year law student at Quinnipiac University in North Haven, Connecticut.

The complaint is based on an incident in which Facebook removed three of Atkinson’s posts, which pertained to alleged government whistleblower who is partially responsible for the current impeachment proceedings against President Trump. In each post, Atkinson used the whistleblower’s name and established an opinion about the whistleblower’s actions.

The purpose of Atkinson posting these was to test whether Facebook was censoring conservative posts that mentioned the whistleblower by name. After Facebook removed both the liberal-leaning post calling the whistleblower “a hero” and the conservative-leaning post that called him “a dirty lying rat,” Atkinson decided to make a third post, that expressed a more neutral post which read “I have conflicting thoughts about the naming of …, the alleged Ukraine whistleblower” while naming him. Facebook removed this post as well. Facebook has a set of Community Standards by which it regulates the posts on its website.

The complaint discussed Facebook’s practice of gathering and selling the data from its users to third parties and establishing Facebook as having a “quasi-monopolistic position in the global public forum of the Internet” by referencing Packingham v. North Carolina amongst other things. It states that Facebook did not inform Atkinson of the reason his posts were removed and accuses Facebook as being motivated by the desire to “pander to and placate its critics.” Facebook has since said that “Any mention of the potential whistle-blower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy.” Atkinson claimed that Facebook’s actions were politically motivated while stating that it silences both right-wing and left-wing voices related to the impeachment of President Trump. He also noted that the whistleblower’s name was revealed on Fox News, implying that the information was therefore no longer secret. Other news organizations continue to avoid mentioning the whistleblower’s name.

The complaint continued that the censorship is motivated by Zuckerberg’s political aspirations and that the censorship of Atkinson and other citizens is driven by “ill-will, malice, and a desire to deflect attention from… Facebook’s practice of surreptitiously mining data for profit from consumers who believe they are receiving a free service devoted primarily to their welfare.”

According to the complaint, Congress granted Facebook immunity from lawsuits occurring under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to maintain free speech on the internet. Zeran v. America Online, Inc. is cited to establish the relevant principles of the statute. The complaint continues that this immunity makes Facebook responsible for “the management of a constructive public trust” and as such is required to act in accordance with the trust’s purpose. The complaint implied that the Defendant cannot receive the immunity if it counters the intent for which the immunity was granted. It referenced Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority to argue this agreement makes Facebook’s actions equivalent to state actions in an attempt to open the Defendant to First Amendment violations.

The Plaintiff is seeking punitive damages greater than $5 billion to deter Facebook from similar violations in the future. The amount of damages is based on the fact that Facebook allegedly set aside this amount of money to deal with anticipated fines from the Federal Trade Commission. The plaintiff is also seeking attorney’s fees and costs and compensation for the damages he incurred by the violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech. Atkinson is being represented by the Pattis Law Firm.