Genevieve Mahoney, a student at Furman University, who attended the January 6, 2021 riot at the United States Capitol recently lost her defamation case against Meta. The United States District Court for Northern District of California found that Facebook's statements were not "of and concerning" Ms. Mahoney, and on that basis, dismissed her complaint.
Ms. Mahoney contends that she attended what she describes as a "rally" at the Capitol on January 6. On that day, she posted a photo of the Capitol dome, with "Trump" flags flowing in the wind. She captioned the photo simply "Our Capitol." Ms. Mahoney states in her complaint, that on that day "some protestors other than Genevieve," commit[ted] crimes by breaching the Capitol and engaging in criminal activity."
Later that same day, Meta published an Emergency News Statement," which provided:
We are appalled by the violence at the Capitol today. We are treating these events as an emergency . . . For those of you who are wondering, here are the actions we're taking: First, we have been searching for and removing the following content:
- Praise and support of the storming of the Capitol.
- Calls to bring weapons to locations across the US—not just in Washington but anywhere in the US—including protests.
- Incitement or encouragement of the events at the Capitol, including videos and photos from the protestors. At this point they represent promotion of criminal activity which violates our policies.
- Calls for protests—even peaceful ones—if they violate curfew in DC.
- Attempts to restage violence tomorrow or in the coming days.
Ms. Mahoney contends that the third bullet of the Emergency News Statement "connected her to those who committed crimes at the Capitol by implying that all January 6 event attendees were engaging in criminal conduct." In Ms. Mahoney's view, this constitutes defamation.
Sometime later, Ms. Mahoney found herself called out on an Instagram account called @fur.meme. That account is apparently followed by Furman students, faculty, school officials, and alumni. One @fur.meme posting stated: "as of right now, it has been made clear that . . . @genmahoney19 [has] attended this violent, pro-Trump event. This information is known by pictures [she] has shared on [her] public Instagram accounts." That Instagram post made no mention of the Meta Emergency News Statement.
The court found Ms. Mahoney's defamation claim deficient because the Meta statement in no way mentioned Ms. Mahoney specifically. Applying California law, the federal court ruled that the group of protestors was so large that no individual member of the group could claim to have been defamed by virtue of a comment about the group's activity. Typically, a group that numbers more than 25 is too large to attribute a comment to an individual member. Here, Ms. Mahoney did not help her case when she noted in the complaint that "thousands of people across the country traveled to the Ellipse in D.C. on January 6, 2021, to have their voices heard and to peacefully and lawfully protest the Election and Certification Count."
Ms. Mahoney tried to argue that the blurb on @fur.meme indicated that people reasonably understood the Emergency News Statement to be about her. But Ms. Mahoney did not allege that the source for @fur.meme was the Meta Emergency News Statement. And, as the court noted, reading the post suggested that it was based on Ms. Mahoney's own Instagram account.
All in all, it's been a rough few years for Ms. Mahoney. She didn't get the outcome she wanted in the 2020 Presidential election, and she lost her lawsuit. Tough break. No word on whether she plans to "peacefully" protest this decision.