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Facebook Potentially Liable in French Nude Painting Case

By Peter Clarke, JD on February 17, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.

An appellate court in Paris has ruled recently that Facebook can be sued in France and a case thus can proceed against the social media giant in France with respect to Facebook's decision to remove the account of a user in France who posted a well-known 19th century nude painting, according to Reuters.

This legal decision could be of concern to Facebook, as it has more than 30 million users in France, and because the French appellate court rejected the clause contained in Facebook's terms and conditions, that requires worldwide lawsuits to be heard in Santa Clara, California, as "unfair." Facebook still has the option to seek review by the highest appellate court in France.

This particular case was brought by a Parisian teacher and art lover who had his Facebook account terminated without any advance notice. The account was terminated shortly after he posted a photo of a painting entitled "The Origins of the World" by Gustave Courbet from the 19th century. That particular painting includes a depiction of female genitalia.

In this lawsuit, this Facebook user seeks the reactivation of his account, and he also is seeking damages. He has stated his belief that he has a free speech right to post an artistic masterpiece without being censored by a social media network. He also stated his belief that it is not up to Facebook to try to determine whether a particular work is a masterpiece or pornography.

On its site, Facebook explains that it may restrict the display of nudity so that some audiences within its global community may not be offended due to sensitivity with respect to this type of content. But Facebook also explains that it does allow photographs of certain artistic works that depict nude figures.

The lawyer for this particular Facebook user has stated that Facebook in essence is hypocritical by allowing images of violence while seeking to limit the display of nudity within artistic works.

Facebook likely takes the position that its users are bound by the terms and conditions on its site, and that it also has the corresponding right to remove what it deems as inappropriate content on Facebook. Facebook obviously also believes that disputes relating to the site and its content should be venued in Santa Clara California, as stated on its site.

This Facebook user believes that he has a free speech right to display art like the photo of the painting he posted, and that Facebook should not be in the position of acting as the world's social media referee regarding artistic and other content.

Facebook most certainly believes that it has immunity from liability for content posted on its side by its users, pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, the more active Facebook becomes in terms of deciding which content should or should not be displayed on its site, it is conceivable that its immunity under the statute could be eroded.

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