By Annie Ropeik • Jan 20, 2020
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The owner of the Teatotaller café in Somersworth is taking on Facebook at the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The colorful coffee shop, a self-styled “queer hipster oasis,” routinely hosts everything from teen drag shows to presidential campaign stops.
Owner Emmett Soldati markets them all on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. He says it was a blow to his business when, in 2018, Teatotaller’s Instagram account – with more than 2,000 followers – was shut down without warning.
“We had spent money advertising on their platform to do many things, including building a following, and we lost that following,” Soldati said in an interview at Teatotaller Sunday.
Facebook’s terms and conditions for Instagram limit users’ legal recourse, but say they can pursue a case in small claims court. Soldati did that, in Dover, arguing the platform was negligent in deleting his account and asking for it to be restored.
But Facebook then claimed immunity from the case, citing a federal law – the Communications Decency Act – which protects publishing platforms from being sued over content posted by users. Soldati says Facebook is applying that law unfairly in cases like his.
“We’re not claiming that there’s some content here that might have been offensive or deemed [worth] deleting,” he says. In fact, he says he still doesn’t know why Facebook shut down his account.
“We’re saying we should be allowed to hold them liable, we should be allowed to seek damages,” Soldati says. “And they don’t want to set any precedent in that matter, it’s very clear.”
The Dover court agreed with Facebook and dismissed the case.
Soldati says his inability to use the small claims court means Facebook is violating its own terms of service, giving users no legal recourse at all. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
The court has not yet decided whether to hold oral arguments. They could rule on the case without doing so.
In the meantime, Soldati has rebuilt his cafe’s Instagram. He says he’s already spent more pursuing the case, where he’s acting as his own attorney, than he’d recoup in damages if he won. But he hopes his case will challenge the social media giant.
“How much of their power and their profits and success has been built on silencing legitimate claims of how they should be conducting their business?” Soldati says.
In their brief to the Supreme Court, Facebook attorneys from Vermont and San Francisco reiterate their argument that the Dover court was right to throw out the case under the Communications Decency Act. They write that the law “confers broad immunity upon Facebook against claims like [Soldati’s] that seek to hold Facebook liable for the exercise of a traditional editorial function, including the deletion of a user’s content, as numerous courts around the country have uniformly held.”
For his part, Soldati has plenty to do while waiting to see if the high court will set oral arguments in his case. He plans to run this year for the Executive Council seat currently held by gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky.
Soldati, the son of former Congressional candidate and Strafford County attorney Lincoln Soldati, also plans to open a new Teatotaller location in Concord later this year.