A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Netflix that was brought by the family of a teenager whose suicide was allegedly triggered by watching the show 13 Reasons Why. The judge based the ruling on free speech protections.
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, pointing to a law allowing the dismissal of cases that infringe upon protected speech, ruled that Netflix cannot be sued over recommending the show to viewers. “This is a tragic case,” Gonzalez Rogers said. “But ultimately, I don’t think that it survives.”
The lawsuit, which was brought in August by John Herndon and the estate of his daughter, alleged that viewers were not adequately warned or shielded from suggestive content in 13 Reasons Why. The show depicts the events that precipitate a teenager’s suicide.
Netflix cautioned in court filings that restrictions on content would lead to censorship of creative works, noting movies depicting teen suicide such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dead Poets Society and Dear Evan Hansen. The streaming giant moved to dismiss the lawsuit under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which compels the dismissal of claims challenging speech that might be protected.
“Creators obligated to shield certain viewers from expressive works depicting suicide would inevitably censor themselves to avoid the threat of liability,” lawyers for Netflix wrote. “This would dampen the vigor and limit the variety of public debate.”
During the hearing on the motion to dismiss, Ryan Hamilton, a partner at Hamilton Law representing the plaintiff, pushed back against claims that the lawsuit is about the show’s content. He centered his arguments around Netflix’s algorithm, which he characterized as a dangerous product feature.
“What this case is about is the private targeting of vulnerable children and consequences that were not only foreseeable and were foreseen but that Netflix was warned about,” he said.
Responding to arguments from Hamilton that the case falls within exclusions to the state’s anti-SLAPP statute, Gonzalez Rogers indicated that they likely do not apply because it’s impossible to “disassociate and untangle the content of that show” from the claims in the complaint. She said, “If you attempted to sue on the grounds that you didn’t want the content of the show to be disseminated, you’d lose.”
While plaintiffs in cases are typically given opportunities to fix their claims, Gonzalez Rogers said that it might be in their interest for her not to allow leave to amend because it would allow them to immediately appeal. She ordered Hamilton to respond by Jan. 18 on whether he wants to file an amended complaint.
Netflix has removed the original, nearly three-minute-long suicide scene in the season one finale.
Netflix declined to comment.