Charlotte schools’ social media suit likely to shift to California court

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  • A federal court in California is likely to hear the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board's lawsuit against major social media companies.
  • A conditional transfer order filed Thursday transfers the Charlotte case and three others from Maryland and South Carolina to a federal judge in California.
  • The Charlotte-Mecklenburg suit accuses social media companies of contributing to a "mental health crisis" among American children.

A federal court in California is likely to address the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s lawsuit against major social media companies. The suit filed in August accuses the companies of contributing to a “mental health crisis” among American children.

The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation filed a conditional transfer order Thursday. It transfers the Charlotte case, along with three others from Maryland and South Carolina, to US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in the Northern District of California.

On Oct. 6, 2022, the panel transferred 20 similar cases to the same court “for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.” Over the following year, the panel transferred 104 more cases.

“It appears that the action(s) on this conditional transfer order involve questions of fact that are common to the actions previously transferred to the Northern District of California and assigned to Judge Rogers,” according to the order signed by panel clerk Tiffaney Pete.

The order becomes effective once it’s filed with the California court. Parties in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg case would have seven days after that filing to object to the transfer.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education filed its 184-page complaint in US District Court for North Carolina’s Western District.

The suit targets owners of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube. Defendants include Meta and Google.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that nearly 200 school districts across the country have filed similar suits. The Greensboro-based attorneys representing CMS told the Charlotte Observer that other districts in North Carolina plan to file suit.

“American children are suffering an unprecedented mental health crisis fueled by Defendants’ addictive and dangerous social media products,” according to the lawsuit. “In the past decade, Americans’ engagement with social media grew exponentially, nowhere more dramatically than among our country’s youth.”

“That explosion in usage is no accident,” the complaint continued. “It is the result of Defendants’ studied efforts to induce young people to compulsively use their products—Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube. And Defendants have grown not just their user bases, but the frequency with which users use their platforms and the time each user spends on their platforms.”

“Defendants’ growth is a product of choices they made to design and operate their platforms in ways that exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms,” CMS’ lawsuit alleged. “These techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to young users. Defendants have intentionally cultivated children as users, creating a mental health crisis among America’s youth.”

“Defendants have done so for profit,” the complaint continued. “Adolescents and children are central to the Defendants’ business models. These age groups are highly connected to the Internet, more likely to have social media accounts, and more likely to devote their downtime to social media usage.”

“Additionally, youth influence the behavior of their parents and younger siblings,” the CMS suit continued. “As one Defendant put it, ‘los[ing] the teen foothold in the U.S.’ would mean ‘los[ing] the pipeline’ for growth.”

“Over the past decade, Defendants have relentlessly pursued a strategy of growth-at-all-costs, recklessly ignoring the impact of their products on children’s mental and physical health and well-being,” according to the complaint. “In a race to corner the ‘valuable but untapped’ market of tween and teen users, each Defendant designed product features to promote repetitive, uncontrollable use by kids.”

The suit targets the social media companies with charges of public nuisance, negligence, and gross negligence.

“Defendants have created a mental health crisis in Plaintiff’s schools, unreasonably interfering with the public health and safety in Plaintiff’s community and interfering with the operations and learning environment of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board,” according to the complaint. “Plaintiff and its students have a right to be free from conduct that endangers their health, safety, and welfare.”

“Yet Defendants have engaged in conduct which unreasonably and substantially interferes with the public health and safety in Plaintiff’s community by designing, marketing, and operating their respective social media platforms for use by students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board, in a manner that substantially interferes with the functions and operations of Plaintiff’s schools and with the public health, safety, and welfare of Plaintiff’s community,” the suit continued.

The school board blames the social media companies for forcing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to hire more staff and increase staff time to deal with students’ mental, emotional, and social health issues. The complaint also alleged other ways in which social media platforms led the schools to divert “time and resources from instruction activity.”

In addition to Ward Black Law in Greensboro, the suit lists law firms in New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco as working on the case.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a federal judge is scheduled this year to address social media companies’ motions to dismiss similar lawsuits. The companies argue that the conduct targeted in the complaints is protected by a federal law known as Section 230.