Facebook v. Sullivan: Public Figures and Newsworthiness in Online Speech

41 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2019 Last revised: 24 Jul 2019

See all articles by Thomas Kadri

Thomas Kadri

Yale Law School

Kate Klonick

St. John's University - School of Law; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project

Date Written: 2019

Abstract

In the United States, there are now two systems to adjudicate disputes about harmful speech. The first is older and more established: the legal system in which judges apply constitutional law to limit tort claims alleging injuries caused by speech. The second is newer and less familiar: the content-moderation system in which platforms like Facebook implement the rules that govern online speech. These platforms aren’t bound by the First Amendment. But, as it turns out, they rely on many of the tools used by courts to resolve tensions between regulating harmful speech and preserving free expression — particularly the entangled concepts of “public figures” and “newsworthiness.”

This Article offers the first empirical analysis of how judges and content moderators have used these two concepts to shape the boundaries of free speech. It first introduces the legal doctrines developed by the “Old Governors,” exploring how courts have shaped the constitutional concepts of public figures and newsworthiness in the face of tort claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Article then turns to the “New Governors” and examines how Facebook’s content-moderation system channeled elements of the courts’ reasoning for imposing First Amendment limits on tort liability.

By exposing the similarities and differences between how the two systems have understood these concepts, this Article offers lessons for both courts and platforms as they confront new challenges posed by online speech. It exposes the pitfalls of using algorithms to identify public figures; explores the diminished utility of setting rules based on voluntary involvement in public debate; and analyzes the dangers of ad-hoc and unaccountable newsworthiness determinations. Both courts and platforms must adapt to the new speech ecosystem that companies like Facebook have helped create, particularly the way that viral content has shifted our normative intuitions about who deserves harsher rules in disputes about harmful speech, be it in law or content moderation.

Finally, the Article concludes by exploring what this comparison reveals about the structural role platforms play in today’s speech ecosystem and how it illuminates new solutions. These platforms act as legislature, executive, judiciary, and press — but without any separation of powers to establish checks and balances. A change to this model is already occurring at one platform: Facebook is creating a new Oversight Board that will hopefully provide due process to users on the platform’s speech decisions and transparency about how content-moderation policy is made, including how concepts related to newsworthiness and public figures are applied.

Keywords: online speech, private platforms, internet platforms, internet intermediaries, free speech, constitutional law, First Amendment, private governance, tort law, defamation, privacy law

Suggested Citation

Kadri, Thomas and Klonick, Kate, Facebook v. Sullivan: Public Figures and Newsworthiness in Online Speech (2019). Southern California Law Review, Forthcoming; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 19-0020. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3332530 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3332530

Thomas Kadri

Yale Law School ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Kate Klonick (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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