Court rejects feminist lawsuit seeking social media censorship

A federal court in Virginia has dismissed a Title IX lawsuit filed by feminist students at the University of Mary Washington who wanted to ban an anonymous messaging app.

According to The Washington Post, the complaint was spurred by the digital harassment of student feminists through Yik Yak, a now-defunct app that allowed college students to post anonymous messages about people and events on their campus.

In September 2014, members of the club Feminists United on Campus started posting flyers to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus. Soon after, according to their initial lawsuit, members were individually targeted by name on the anonymous messaging app.

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Several “hundreds” of “Yaks” were made anonymously about the feminist students, many of which were “threatening” or “sexually hostile” in nature. Some students began to fear for their safety, and at least one student made use of a police escort to attend campus events.

Demanding an end to the harassment, the students called upon the university to work with Yik Yak to ban the app from campus, and also asked the administration to ban Yik Yak from campus Wi-Fi. When the school refused, the students sued, claiming that the school was in violation of its Title IX obligations.

While the initial lawsuit notes that Feminists United on Campus had about 30 members, only five students are listed as plaintiffs: Paige McKinsey, Julia Michels, Kelli Musik, Jordan Williams, and Alexis Lehman. The club was affiliated with the national Feminist Majority Foundation, which is also listed as a plaintiff.

That lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, was struck down last Tuesday, UCLA professor Eugene Volokh first reported for the Post.

“Because [University of Mary Washington] has limited, if any, control over Yik Yak, the plaintiffs’ Title IX discrimination claim fails,” the court noted, adding that the feminist students’ claim of retaliation was also dismissed “because UMW took no retaliatory action” against the students.

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“Finally, because no constitutional violation occurred, let alone a clearly established or continuing violation, the plaintiffs have no stated claims under the Equal Protection Clause,” the ruling continued. “Accordingly, the Court will grant the defendants motion to dismiss.”

Volokh, a First Amendment scholar, agreed with the court’s motion to dismiss, and added that the school would have violated the First Amendment if they agreed to block the app on campus.

“A public university can’t block otherwise available student access to an entire privately operated communication platform, just because a few students are using that platform in ways that are rude, harmful to public debate, or even outright criminal,” he argues. “Such a block is a classic prior restraint—here, an attempt to categorically block all use of a communications mechanism in order to prevent some users’ misuse.”

Prior restraint, also called “pre-censorship,” is “generally unconstitutional,” according to Cornell Law School.

Campus Reform reached out to Feminists United, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

UPDATE: UMW Director of Media and Public Relations Marty Morrison provided the following statement to Campus Reform:

"District Court Judge John A. Gibney Jr.’s ruling to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Feminist Majority Foundation against the University of Mary Washington affirmed the University’s position in the case. UMW’s long standing emphasis on providing a caring, personalized experience and a welcoming environment is a hallmark of the University.  Mary Washington prioritizes student safety and opposes all forms of discrimination. It has continued to strengthen its diverse campus culture through the establishment of a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and numerous initiatives to encourage understanding and acceptance among its broadly represented student population. In UMW’s 2017 opening assembly, President Troy Paino clarified the difference between disagreement, as valuable to learning and protected by the First Amendment, and endangerment, which he declared unacceptable to UMW and alien to its values."

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen