Facebook v. Sullivan: Public Figures and Newsworthiness in Online Speech
63 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2019 Last revised: 26 Jan 2020
Date Written: 2019
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 are not 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 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
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