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Supreme Court: Social media outlets not liable in terrorist killing

The Supreme Court ruled that three of the largest social media outlets were not liable for "aiding and abetting" ISIS in a 2017 terrorist attack.
Social media outlets not liable in terrorist killing at nightclub
Posted at 4:09 PM, May 18, 2023

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said major social media platforms were not liable for the death of Nawras Alassaf in a 2017 terrorist attack. Alassaf was among 39 killed in the New Year's attack on a nightclub in Istanbul.

Abdulkadir Masharipov allegedly carried out the attack on behalf of ISIS. Alassaf’s family brought a suit under the Antiterrorism Act, which permits U.S. nationals who have been injured “by reason of an act of international terrorism” to file a civil lawsuit for damages, the Supreme Court said. 

In Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh, Alassaf’s family sued Facebook, Twitter and Google, alleging the companies aided and abetted the attack. 

The plaintiffs claimed that social media companies “knowingly allowed” terrorist organizations like ISIS the opportunity to recruit and spread propaganda. They also claimed that the organizations profited off advertising from ISIS.

A U.S. District Court had previously rejected their argument but the Ninth Circuit of Appeals reversed the decision, finding the outlets liable.

The social media outlets recognized that terrorist groups have used their platform. But the justices agreed with their arguments that their level of involvement did not rise to aiding and abetting.

“If aiding-and-abetting liability were taken too far, then ordinary merchants could become liable for any misuse of their goods and services, no matter how attenuated their relationship with the wrongdoer,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in his majority opinion. “And those who merely deliver mail or transmit emails could be liable for the tortious messages contained therein.”

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“The fact that some bad actors took advantage of these platforms is insufficient to state a claim that defendants knowingly gave substantial assistance and thereby aided and abetted those wrongdoers’ acts,” Thomas added. “And that is particularly true because a contrary holding would effectively hold any sort of communication provider liable for any sort of wrongdoing merely for knowing that the wrongdoers were using its services and failing to stop them. That conclusion would run roughshod over the typical limits on tort liability and take aiding and abetting far beyond its essential culpability moorings.”

Also on Thursday, the court sent back a similar case to a lower court that alleged Google was liable for the death of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen killed in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. 

In Gonzalez v. Google, her family made a similar argument that Google should be liable for aiding and abetting in the 2015 attack. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals to review, using its ruling in Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh as guidance.

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