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Student Says Snapchat Enabled Teacher’s Abuse. Supreme Court Won’t Hear His Case

Over the dissent of two justices, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear the appeal of a student seeking to hold the owner of Snapchat liable for its alleged role in facilitating the sexual abuse of the boy by one of his teachers.

“The court chooses not to address whether social-media platforms—some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world—can be held responsible for their own misconduct,” Justice Clarence Thomas said in a dissent from the court’s denial of review in Doe v. Snap Inc.

Joined by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Thomas said the case presented a good opportunity to review the broad immunity from liability provided to internet services under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. As interpreted by lower courts, the provision protects social media platforms from being considered the publisher or speaker of content posted by its users, including the posts and direct messages on Snapchat that remain accessible for only short periods of time.

“Social media platforms have increasingly used Section 230 as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Thomas said.

Lawyers for the Texas student, who was 15 when he was abused by a high school science teacher who had groomed him with sexually explicit messages on Snapchat, argued in a Supreme Court brief that “social media companies are not taking reasonable and obvious steps to protect children online, and courts have applied Section 230 to cut off any means to hold them accountable.”

Some federal appeals court judges thought Snap’s alleged liability should be reviewed

Court papers say the student, identified as John Doe, was a sophomore at Oak Ridge High School in Conroe, Texas, in the fall of 2021 when his science teacher, Bonnie Guess-Mazock, began preying on him. She asked for his Snapchat username and then sent seductive photos of herself. They had sexual encounters over the next several months, with the teacher helping Doe get prescription and over-the-counter drugs that she encouraged him to take before they had sex. Doe’s guardian discovered the abuse after the student overdosed on prescription drugs and was hospitalized.

Guess-Mazock pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child in 2022 and was sentenced to 10 years in a Texas prison.

Doe and his guardian sued, asserting various claims against the teacher, the Conroe Independent School District, and Snapchat owner Snap. The claims against the social-media platform alleged that Snap monitors its users’ online conduct for advertising purposes but does not use such detailed information to protect minors from sexual predators.

A federal district court allowed some claims against the teacher to move forward but dismissed the school district and Snap as defendants, with the court finding the social media platform immune from liability based on Section 230.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, affirmed the district court’s decision in 2023. In December of last year, the full 5th Circuit voted 8-7 against rehearing the case.

In a dissent from that denial of rehearing, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod said that “internet service providers have moved from passive facilitators to active operators. They monitor and monetize content, while simultaneously promising to protect young and vulnerable users.”

When providers such as Snapchat have oversight that results in knowledge of illegal content, they should not be shielded from liability, Elrod said.

Doe was joined in his Supreme Court appeal by 22 (mostly Republican-led) states, several child welfare organizations, and the Seattle school district, which last year sued Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms over the outlets’ alleged failures to address the emotional and mental health well-being of its youngest users.

“Clarifying Section 230’s scope is critical given that Doe’s experience is tragically common,” says the Seattle district’s friend-of-the-court brief, which goes on to cite a study reporting that 7 percent of all minors who use Snapchat reported an online sexual interaction with someone whom they believed was 18 or older.

Snap, in its brief urging the Supreme Court not to take up the case, said, “The alleged facts of this case are disturbing, but they have little to do with Snap.”

Doe’s “teacher made the (illegal) decision to approach [Doe] in her classroom and to prey on him sexually,” the company said. “Snapchat is no more responsible for the teacher’s criminal acts than the phone company that hosted her text messages to [Doe] or the car that drove the teacher to school.”

The company’s brief notes that Doe cites Snap’s ongoing efforts to protect children, such as its policy of reporting all known instances of child sexual exploitation to authorities, as evidence that Snap undertook “a duty to protect its young users”—and then faults Snap for allegedly not “perform[ing] that duty fully and reasonably.”

“The perverse implication of that theory is that Snap would have been better off if it had never made any efforts to protect its users,” the company said.

Any reevaluation of the scope of Section 230 should be taken up before Congress, not the courts, Snap said.

In his dissent from the denial of review, Thomas appeared to disagree with that idea.

“The question whether Section 230 immunizes platforms for their own conduct warrants the court’s review,” Thomas said. “In the platforms’ world, they are fully responsible for their websites when it results in constitutional protections, but the moment that responsibility could lead to liability, they can disclaim any obligations and enjoy greater protections from suit than nearly any other industry.”

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