TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal appeals court Monday rejected a lawsuit alleging that Twitter, Google and Facebook should be held liable in the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub after Islamic State social-media posts radicalized shooter Omar Mateen.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed by victims and estates of victims in the shooting that killed 49 people and wounded dozens of others at the LGBT club.
The ruling focused heavily on whether the plaintiffs had proven that Twitter, Google-owned YouTube and Facebook “aided and abetted” Mateen in violation of a federal law known as the Anti-Terrorism Act. The court’s 31-page ruling said the plaintiffs did not show that the attack was an act of international terrorism as defined under the law.
“We are deeply saddened by the deaths and injuries caused by Mr. Mateen’s rampage, but we agree with the district court that the plaintiffs failed to make out a plausible claim that the Pulse massacre was an act of ‘international terrorism’ as that term is defined in the ATA (Anti-Terrorism Act),” Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote in the ruling joined by Judges Andrew Brasher and Julie Carnes. “And without such an act of ‘international terrorism,’ the social media companies --- no matter what we may think of their alleged conduct --- cannot be liable for aiding and abetting under the ATA.”
The Atlanta-based court said Mateen was radicalized through the Islamic militant group’s use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and that the group, commonly known as ISIS, claimed credit for the massacre. But it pointed to part of the definition of international terrorism as activities that “occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries.”
“Mr. Mateen was self-radicalized on the internet while living in Florida and came to identify with ISIS,” Jordan wrote. “He then used firearms to commit mass murder and mayhem in that same state. His deadly acts of domestic terrorism --- and the means by which he accomplished them --- do not plausibly transcend national boundaries.”
Also, the ruling said ISIS did not commit, plan or authorize the attack.
“ISIS claimed credit after-the-fact, and there is nothing in the complaint to suggest that ISIS was aware of Mr. Mateen or knew beforehand about his planned attack at Pulse,” the ruling said. “Although the complaint alleges that ‘ISIS reaches potential recruits by maintaining accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube so that individuals across the globe may reach out to (it) directly,’ the plaintiffs never once claim that Mr. Mateen was in contact with ISIS prior to the shooting, or that ISIS was involved in committing, planning or authorizing the attack, or that ISIS knew about the attack beforehand.”
The appeals court also turned down allegations against the social-media companies under Florida law for negligent infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death.
Mateen entered Pulse in the early morning of June 12, 2016, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol and committed what was at the time the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history. Before being killed by police, he barricaded himself in a bathroom, called 911 and declared allegiance to ISIS, according to the ruling.
The Pulse massacre became the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in 2017, when a gunman killed 60 people in Las Vegas.