Fifth Circuit Takes Up Issue of Social Media Responsibility Following Dallas Police Shootings

In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — Whether social media giants Twitter, Google and Facebook can be held liable for the deaths of five police officers in Dallas in July 2016 under the Antiterrorism Act came before the Fifth Circuit Thursday afternoon after the case was dismissed last year by a federal judge in Texas.

“Everyone is essentially always giving these companies a pass,” plaintiff attorney Keith Altman said during his rebuttal Thursday. Shortly before then he characterized the platforms as having almost been given “immunity” because, he said, “no one wants to find out” how substantial they are in helping to spread radicalization or provide direct contact between radical group leaders and those interested in joining their movements.

But attorney Ari Holtzblatt who represents the social media giants told the three-judge panel that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit never so much as alleged that “Hamas called for police shootings.”

Holtzblatt argued that under the Antiterrorism Act, Hamas or another terrorism organization would have had to have been involved.

In her Dec. 5, 2019 opinion dismissing the case from U.S. Northern District of Texas, Judge Jane Boyle found that the plaintiffs needed to prove some degree of directness between the material support they allege the social media platforms provided and the attack itself.

Boyle, an appointee of George W. Bush, concluded in her opinion that “plaintiffs fail to plead a sufficient connection between defendants’ material support and the Dallas shooting.” 

Secondly, she found that a close enough connection had not been established between Hamas and the shooting.

Boyle’s order characterized this case as just the “latest in a string of lawsuits” that have been brought in an attempt to hold social media platforms responsible for shootings and attacks nationwide with the argument that “the platforms enabled international terrorist organizations to radicalize the attacks’ perpetrators.” 

The case relates to the July 7, 2016 incident in which Micah Johnson attacked and killed five police officers and injured nine others during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas following political unrest over the police shooting deaths of two Black men earlier in the month. 

Alton Sterling was shot by police outside of a corner store in Baton Rouge just after midnight on July 5, and one day later, on July 6, Philando Castille was shot by police during a traffic stop in Minneapolis.  

Johnson, an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, was killed by a robot designed by police directly after the shooting. He had reportedly said earlier on that the ambush and slayings were motivated by his anger over police violence against Black men.

Plaintiffs in the case are Jesus Retana, who was injured by the shooting, and Retana’s husband Andrew Moss. In their lawsuit, they allege that Johnson “liked” the Facebook pages of the New Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam and Black Riders Liberation Army and that three are listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.

U.S. Circuit judges on Thursday’s panel were Jacques Wiener Jr., an appointee of George H. W. Bush, Gregg Costa, an appointee of Barack Obama and Don R. Willett, an appointee of Donald Trump. They did not indicate when or how they will rule.

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