The New Age of Terrorism: Social Media, Free Speech, and Public Safety

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay


By Karissa Murphy, Staff Writer

On Nov. 18, 2016, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick of the Northern District of California dismissed claims brought against Twitter Inc. by the wives and children of American police officers killed in a terrorist attack in Jordan. The families claim that Twitter provided “material support” to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by allowing ISIS to sign up for Twitter accounts, and this material support was the proximate cause of the shooting death of the officers.[1]

The attack took place in November of last year, when officers Lloyd “Carl” Fields and James Damon Creach travelled to Jordan through their work as government contractors.[2] Both served as law enforcement officers in the United States and were assigned to the International Police Training Center (IPTC) in Jordan, a facility run by the U.S. Department of State.[3] Jordanian police captain Anwar Abu Zaid was studying at the IPTC. On Nov. 9, 2015, Abu Zaid smuggled an assault rifle and two handguns into the IPTC and shot and killed Fields, Creach, and three other individuals. ISIS later “claimed responsibility” for the attack.[4]

Fields’ widow first brought charges against Twitter on Jan. 13, 2016. Creach’s widow and her children joined the suit in an amended complaint filed March 24. Judge Orrick granted Twitter’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint because under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), companies such as Twitter cannot be held liable for a third party’s published content.[5] The judge, however, allowed the plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint.

In their new complaint, plaintiffs accuse Twitter of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act by knowingly and recklessly providing material support to ISIS by allowing the terrorist group to sign up and use Twitter accounts.[6] Through these accounts, ISIS is able to recruit potential members, communicate via Twitter’s Direct Messaging capabilities, raise funds for its terrorist activities, spread propaganda, and gain the resources necessary to carry out attacks, including the attack on officers Fields and Creach.[7] Section 2333(a) of the Act provides:

Any national of the United States injured in his or her person, property, or business by reason of an act of international terrorism, or his or her estate, survivors, or heirs, may sue therefor in any appropriate district court of the United States and shall recover threefold the damages he or she sustains and the cost of the suit, including attorney’s fees.[8]

Sections 2339A and 2339B of the Act prohibit the knowing provision of “material support or resources” for terrorist activities or organizations. The term “material support or resources” is defined to include “any property, tangible or intangible, or service,” including “communications equipment.”[9]

Twitter has long faced criticism for its anti-censorship policies compared to other social media platforms, a position that has drawn in extremist groups like ISIS, which use the service to spread their messages.[10] In mid-2015, however, Twitter began suspending thousands of accounts promoting terrorism in an effort to decrease the use of the social platform to promote violent messages.[11] Unfortunately, many of the users who are suspended simply create new accounts and start over. Although Twitter’s new aggressive stance on terrorism is a foot in the right direction, extremist groups like ISIS continue to use the social media platform to recruit new members and gain resources to carry out attacks.[12]

Nonetheless, as Judge Orrick reiterated when he dismissed plaintiff’s second complaint, Twitter is immune from liability because of the CDA.[13] As the judge reasoned, providing accounts to ISIS still constitutes a form of publishing activity; Twitter could not identify ISIS members without analyzing some speech or content expressed by the would-be account holder.[14]

A policy that would prevent ISIS members from obtaining Twitter accounts would require a strict screening and vetting process before allowing anyone to open an account.[15] Alternatively, Congress could amend the CDA to carve out an exception for terrorism. Moving forward, the government and companies like Twitter will have to decide where to draw the proverbial line between free speech and public safety.



[1] Fields v. Twitter, Inc., 16-CV-00213-WHO, 2016 WL 6822065 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 18, 2016).

[2] Id. at 1.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] 47 U.S.C.A. §230 (West)

[6] Id. at 2.

[7] Id.

[8] 18. U.S.C. § 2333(a)

[9] 18 U.S.C. §§ 2339A(b)(1), 2339B(g)(4)

[10] Emily Goldberg Knox, The Slippery Slope of Material Support Prosecutions: Social Media Support to Terrorists, 66 Hastings L. J. 295 (2014).

[11] Id. at 297.

[12] Id.

[13] Fields v. Twitter, Inc., 16 CV-00213-WHO, 2016 WL 6822065, at 11 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 18).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

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