Twitter will not have to face a lawsuit by family members of two ISIS victims, a federal appellate court ruled Wednesday.
The lawsuit, brought by family members of Lloyd “Carl” Fields, Jr. and James Damon Creach, alleged that Twitter provided support to ISIS by allowing members to create accounts on the service. Both men were killed in a November 2015 terrorist shooting in Amman, Jordan.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that the family members could not proceed with their claims because their complaint didn't show a "direct relationship" between the service's acts and the shooting.
"At most, the [complaint] establishes that Twitter’s alleged provision of material support to ISIS facilitated the organization’s growth and ability to plan and execute terrorist acts," the judges wrote. They added that the complaint "does not articulate any connection between Twitter’s provision of this aid and Plaintiffs-Appellants’ injuries."
The decision appears to mark the first time an appellate court has ruled on whether social media services can be sued for allegedly assisting terrorists. Twitter, Google and Facebook still face other lawsuits in the trial courts, but Wednesday's decision could result in the dismissal of those cases, according to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman.
"The court's reasoning is quite powerful," says Goldman, who has followed these lawsuits closely. He tells MediaPost that the ruling will make it "extremely difficult" for the other lawsuits to move forward.
"I don't think that the plaintiffs are ever going to be able to make the requisite showing of causation," he says.
Goldman adds that Wednesday's ruling could "apply to a wide range of service providers that have no real connection to terrorist activity other than that they offer services to the public at large.
The lawsuit against Twitter alleged that the company violated the federal Anti-Terrorism Act, which prohibits anyone from knowingly providing material support to terrorists. That law contains a provision that allows anyone injured by violations to sue in federal court.
But the 9th Circuit said in its ruling that Congress didn't intend for that provision to extend to communication services providers. "Communication services and equipment are highly interconnected in modern economic and social life, such that the provision of these services and equipment to terrorists could be expected to cause ripples of harm to flow far beyond the defendant’s misconduct," the judges wrote. They added that nothing in the anti-terrorism law "indicates that Congress intended to provide a remedy to every person reached by these ripples."