Internet Law Protects Video Platform From Church’s Bias Claim, Court Rules

Vimeo Inc. is immune to a lawsuit by a church whose account it deleted for promoting gay conversion, the federal appeals court in New York ruled, amid a battle over online speech.

Church United and its president and founder, James Domen, claimed that the video-hosting platform had illegally discriminated against them over religion and sexual orientation. The court on Thursday upheld a ruling that dismissed their lawsuit, invoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a crucial factor in the development of the internet that provides a broad shield from liability for Vimeo and other tech companies, including Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc.

While lively debate over how to regulate online platforms continues, Section 230 remains the governing statute, Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel of the court.

“Vimeo is free to restrict access to material that, in good faith, it finds objectionable,” she wrote.

Lawyers for Church United didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the ruling.

Free or Dangerous Speech?

Church United created its Vimeo account in October 2016 to upload videos promoting it, including those “addressing sexual orientation as it relates to religion,” Pooler wrote. In November 2018 Vimeo told the church to remove videos advocating sexual orientation change or risk losing its account. The church said Vimeo targeted five of the 89 videos it had uploaded, including on Domen and other “former homosexuals.”

Vimeo deleted the account the following month, saying the company “does not allow videos that harass, incite hatred, or include discriminatory or defamatory speech.”

Section 230 of the 1996 law has been the subject of intense criticism from both the right and the left. Former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have argued that it gives internet companies a free pass to discriminate against conservatives. Progressives have faulted it for letting the platforms make money while avoiding curbs on hate speech and conspiracy theories like the ones that fueled the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Among the platforms at the heart of the debate is the conservative social media app Parler, which has sued Inc. over access to its servers. Amazon has asserted protections under Section 230. Parler also was blocked from returning to Apple Inc.’s App Store recently after it was removed in the wake of the insurrection.

The case is Domen v. Vimeo Inc., 20-00616, Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Manhattan).