By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday dismissed two lawsuits seeking to hold Facebook Inc liable for supporting terrorist groups by letting them use its social media platform to further their goals, including violence against Jews.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn dismissed a $3 billion damages lawsuit by relatives of American victims of Hamas attacks, saying the federal Communications Decency Act regulating internet content immunizes Facebook from liability.
That law "prevents courts from entertaining civil actions that seek to impose liability on defendants like Facebook for allowing third parties to post offensive or harmful content or failing to remove such content once posted," Garaufis wrote.
Garaufis also dismissed a lawsuit by roughly 20,000 Israeli citizens who feared harm from future violence. He said they had no legal right to seek changes to Facebook's platform because they could not show any "actual or imminent" injury.
The decision is a setback to efforts to hold operators of online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter Inc liable for failing to better police speech by their users.
Robert Tolchin, a lawyer for both sets of the plaintiffs, said Garaufis appeared to sidestep limits under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act toward aiding groups such as Hamas, a Palestinian group that the Department of State designates a foreign terrorist organization.
"There is a clash between statutes that the court needed to reconcile but ignored," Tolchin said in an interview. "We are planning to appeal because we see major errors in the decision."
At a hearing last September, Facebook deputy general counsel Paul Grewal assured Garaufis that the Palo Alto, California-based company had "a very serious interest in keeping terrorism content off" its platform.
Facebook did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment.
Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to regulate online pornography, but the law has been applied in other contexts.
Garaufis said those applications have arguably undermined incentives for internet service providers to remove any content, despite Congress' intent, but that it was enough for now to show that the "focus" of that law was to limit liability.
The lawsuits drew notice after Facebook's law firm Kirkland & Ellis initially assigned a junior associate to represent the company, prompting Garaufis to ask whether it took the matter seriously.
Grewal, a former federal judge, was flown in thereafter to Brooklyn from California.
The cases are Cohen et al v. Facebook Inc, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, No. 16-04453; and Force et al v Facebook Inc in the same court, No. 16-05158.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky)