The rise of cyberbullying and its detrimental consequences on adolescents has gained public concern in recent years. A lawsuit filed in 2018 shed a harsh light on cyberbullying and, in turn, highlighted the potential legal ramifications it can have for social media platforms. Eileen Ahern took on such a case with one goal in mind: to ensure the legal boundaries of her client’s liability were properly observed while respecting the gravity of a tragic and unthinkable case.
The case arose from the death of pre-teenager by suicide after enduring a long course of bullying by students at school. The victim’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school district, and other school entities and individuals, alleging they did not sufficiently respond to the bullying. Because one of the bullying incidents took place over a social media platform, the school’s Board of Education filed a third-party complaint against the social media company. The third-party complaint alleged the company failed to use adequate age verification technology to prevent the young users from accessing the platform, which gave them the ability to create and send a bullying message to the victim. The social media company turned to Willenken, led by Eileen, for its defense.
Eileen and her team moved to dismiss the suit, asserting the platform was entitled to immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects online platforms from being treated as publishers of content created by others. The parties hotly disputed the breadth of CDA immunity and its applicability under the facts alleged. The court ultimately agreed with Willenken’s argument that granting or denying platform access is a publishing function, and that the third-party plaintiffs had not adequately alleged the platform participated in the creation of the bullying content. The court held the platform was therefore protected by the CDA and granted Willenken’s motion to dismiss.
Willenken’s victory was significant, not only for the firm’s client, but for other social media platforms, which face increasing encroachment on the boundaries of their immunity from liability for content created by users.