This post was co-written by EFF legal intern Melda Gurakar.

Researchers, journalists, and everyone else has a First Amendment right to criticize social media platforms and their content moderation practices without fear of being targeted by retaliatory lawsuits, a federal court recently ruled.

The decision by a federal court in California to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Elon Musk’s X against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting online hate speech and misinformation, is a win for greater transparency and accountability of social media companies. The court’s ruling in X Corp. v. Center for Countering Digital Hate Ltd. shows that X had no legitimate basis to bring its case in the first place, as the company used the lawsuit to penalize the CCDH for criticizing X and to deter others from doing so.

Vexatious cases like these are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. These lawsuits chill speech because they burden speakers who engaged in protected First Amendment activity with the financial costs and stress of having to fight litigation, rather than seeking to vindicate legitimate legal claims. The goal of these suits is not to win, but to inflict harm on the opposing party for speaking. We are grateful that the court saw X’s lawsuit was a SLAPP and dismissed it, ruling that the claims lacked legal merit and that the suit violated California’s anti-SLAPP statute.

The lawsuit filed in July 2023 accused the CCDH of unlawfully accessing and scraping data from its platform, which X argued CCDH used in order to harm X Corp.'s reputation and, by extension, its business operations, leading to lost advertising revenue and other damages. X argued that CCDH had initiated this calculated “scare campaign” aimed at deterring advertisers from engaging with the platform, supposedly resulting in a significant financial loss for X. Moreover, X claimed that the CCDH breached its Terms of Service contract as a user of X.

The court ruled that X’s accusations were insufficient to bypass the protective shield of California's anti-SLAPP statute. Furthermore, the court's decision to dismiss X Corp.'s claims, including those related to breach of contract and alleged infringements of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, stemmed from X Corp.'s inability to convincingly allege or demonstrate significant losses attributable to CCDH's activities. This outcome not only is a triumph for CCDH, but also validates the anti-SLAPP statute's role in safeguarding critical research efforts against baseless legal challenges. Thankfully, the court also rejected X’s claim under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). X had argued that the CFAA barred CCDH’s scraping of public tweets—a erroneous reading of the law. The court found that regardless of that argument, the X had not shown a “loss” of the type protected by the CFAA, such as technological harms to data or computers.

EFF, alongside the ACLU of Northern California and the national ACLU, filed an amicus brief in support of CCDH, arguing that X Corp.'s lawsuit mischaracterized a nonviable defamation claim as a breach of contract to retaliate against CCDH. The brief supported CCDH's motion to dismiss, arguing that the term of service against CCDH as it pertains to data scraping should be deemed void, and is contrary to the public interest. It also warned of a potential chilling effect on research and activism that rely on digital platforms to gather information.

The ramifications of X Corp v. CCDH reach far beyond this decision. X Corp v. CCDH affirms the Center for Countering Digital Hate's freedom to conduct and publish research that critiques X Corp., and sets precedent that protects critical voices from being silenced online. We are grateful that the court reached this correct result and affirmed that people should not be targeted by lawsuits for speaking critically of powerful institutions.

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