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US: Supreme Court rejects teen’s bid to hold Snapchat liable in sexual assault case

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The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a Texas teen’s appeal to revive his lawsuit against Snapchat for its alleged failure to protect underage users from sexual predators.

The case involved a female teacher who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting the plaintiff when he was a minor.

The plaintiff, who remains unidentified due to being a minor at the time of the lawsuit, brought the appeal after lower courts dismissed his case. The courts found that Snapchat was protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability for user-generated content.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch expressed their disagreement with the court’s decision and stated that they would have granted the appeal.

The lawsuit revolves around the relationship between the plaintiff and Bonnie Guess-Mazock, a high school science teacher who was 36 years old at the time. The abuse took place in the Texas city of Conroe. Guess-Mazock was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the sexual assault of a child.

According to the plaintiff’s allegations, Guess-Mazock used Snapchat’s features, such as disappearing photos and videos, to groom and exploit him. The abuse continued for nearly a year and a half until it was discovered after the plaintiff overdosed on drugs provided or paid for by Guess-Mazock.

In 2022, the plaintiff filed a civil lawsuit against Guess-Mazock, the local public school district, and Snap, the owner of Snapchat. However, only the claims against Snap were at issue in the Supreme Court appeal, seeking unspecified monetary damages.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit accused Snapchat of negligence under Texas law, alleging that the company breached its duty to protect minor users from sexual predators attracted to the platform due to the privacy features it offers.

The lawsuit against Snapchat was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in 2022, who cited the protection provided by Section 230. The decision was affirmed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2023, leading to the plaintiff’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court previously declined to address the scope of Section 230 in cases involving other tech platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Justice Thomas voiced his disagreement with the court’s decision, expressing concern about social media platforms using Section 230 as a shield from liability. He argued that while these platforms claim responsibility for their websites to enjoy constitutional protections, they disclaim any obligations when it comes to potential liability, enjoying greater protections than most other industries.

There have been bipartisan calls for a reevaluation of Section 230, including from President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, aiming to hold companies accountable for the content on their platforms.

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