A gay man’s attempt to hold Grindr responsible for his arrest and prosecution for sex with a minor was cut short on March 13 when a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that an “interactive computer service” provider enjoys statutory immunity from liability for harm resulting from content third parties post to its service.
Ruling on Grindr’s motion to dismiss William F. Saponaro, Jr.’s suit, the task before District Judge Jerome B. Simandle was not to determine the truth of the 54-year-old’s claim he was unaware that the boy who turned up for the threesome with him and his 24-year-old friend Mark LeMunyon was only 13 years old. Instead, he ruled on whether if the assertion were true that fact provided grounds for a liability claim against Grindr.
According to Saponaro’s complaint, LeMunyon set up the threesome after the 13-year-old boy, who was a registered Grindr user, contacted LeMunyon seeking a “sexual encounter.” Saponaro alleged he is not a registered Grindr user.
In his suit, Saponaro claims Grindr was negligent “by allowing the minor to hold himself out as an adult of consenting age on its on-line service.” Saponaro asserts he reasonably relied on Grindr’s terms of service and that Grindr’s negligent failure to verify the age of registrants led to his arrest. The cost of his criminal defense has been high, he said, and he is also asserting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The federal Communications Decency Act affords broad protection to providers and users of any “interactive computer service,” who are not to be treated as the “publisher” or “speaker” of information provided by “another information content provider.” In other words, Grindr is not liable for information posted to its service by individuals and can’t be held responsible to act as an editor or gatekeeper regarding such content. By contrast, a newspaper may be held liable for printing defamatory letters to the editor.
Saponaro’s complaint relied on a 2008 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found Roomates.com, an online roommate-matching service, liable for violating laws against housing discrimination. That website required applicants to fill out a questionnaire inquiring about their sex, family status, and sexual orientation, in violation of a local nondiscrimination law. Judge Simandle found the situations distinguishable. Roommates.
Congress has made clear, Simandle found, that it is US policy to “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” Holding internet service providers responsible for third-party content would severely stifle online freedom of speech on the internet, since providers would likely err on the side of excluding material rather than risk being sued. The cost of monitoring the voluminous information posted would, as well, be prohibitive for providers, said the court.
Simandle also found that since Saponaro himself is not a Grindr user, he cannot seek to impose any duty on the company. Similarly, his argument that “defendants must clearly have foreseen the potential for use by minors,” the court concluded, might be relevant to a claim made by a minor, but not to the harm a non-Grinder user asserts he experienced from the actions of a minor.