More U.S. School Districts Join Nat’l Class Action Lawsuit against Social Media Companies, Including at least 11 in Michigan

By B.N. Frank

According to a 2022 CBS 60 Minutes segment, 150+ U.S. lawsuits filed against social media companies were scheduled to take place in 2023.  American school districts are getting in on the action as well including at least 11 in Michigan alone.

From Gov Tech:

Traverse City Schools Join Lawsuit Against Social Media

Traverse City Area Public Schools is at least the 11th district in Michigan to join a national class-action lawsuit alleging property damage, counselor pay and other expenses incurred by student addiction to social media.

William Perkins, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

(TNS) — In a move described by one trustee as “about the shakiest” unanimous decision that could be reached, the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Educations decided Monday to join a national class action lawsuit against social media companies.

Many, if not all, of the board members expressed hesitancy before doing so, and Board President Scott Newman-Bale said he thought “you could tell from the tone no one’s happy about it.” Still, all members of the board decided to join the growing list of Michigan schools that have added their names to the litigation, led by California-based Frantz Law Group.

That’s the same firm which, beginning in 2021, led TCAPS and hundreds of other districts nationwide, including some 125 in Michigan, into a successful settlement against e-cigarette manufacturer Juul. This new lawsuit would operate much the same way. TCAPS, like many other districts in the state, were connected with Frantz through Thrun Law Firm, a group they have on retainer. If the companies end up settling, the Frantz will distribute a portion of any settlement money out to each of the districts named on the suit. Frantz and Thrun would retain 25 percent of that settlement money as compensation, and the district wouldn’t have to pay for Frantz’s services if they lose.

That basic procedure garnered TCAPS $97,500 this year following the Juul lawsuit, but Superintendent John VanWagoner said he had more misgivings about signing on to this subsequent legal effort.

“At first, I wasn’t sure if about this,” he told trustees Monday. “We’re educators and not trying to get into lawsuits all over the place.”

But, he said, he was persuaded as he saw some of his colleagues in other districts join the suit. It’s clear that these companies target children with content that is dangerous, and there’s a “moral statement to make” in opposition, he said.

“At some point, we have to stand up and say that these things are hurtful,” he said. “They’re hurtful to our systems, and unless we do something like this I don’t know that it’s going to … stop.”

Facebook came under intense scrutiny in 2021 when a former employee, Frances Haugen shared thousands of internal documents showing the company’s own research indicated its products harmed the mental health of adolescents, particularly young girls, including leading to unhealthy views on body image.

Social media has been a hotbed for bullying and harassment. And, while it’s sometimes hard to trace whether that behavior originates inside or outside of school property, it inevitably “bleeds into” the classroom, said Coni Taylor, associate superintendent for labor relations and legal services, who handles Title VI and Title IX investigations in the district.

“Some of the things that I have seen are appalling,” she said.

There are at least 11 Michigan school districts that have signed on to be a part of this lawsuit against the social media companies, Thrun Attorney Piotr Matusiak told Bridge in an email last month. Matusiak declined to name the other districts.

In a letter, the Thrun Law Firm said the parties are seeking past and future damages stemming from social media use, including property damage from students following social media trends along with funding for “counselors or educational programming” to handle issues that stem from social media.

Past “TikTok challenges” have led to considerable destruction of school property. One trend encouraged students to vandalize restrooms by trying to steal increasingly substantial fixtures — including soap dispensers and doors — from the facilities, TCAPS officials said Monday.

Aside from property destruction, damages could also include the loss of state aid to districts as a result of suspensions and expulsions, and compensation for appropriately handling social media issues.

Still, while board members acknowledged the problems with social media, they raised an almost equal number of concerns with the lawsuit.

Trustee Holly T. Bird, an attorney, said she didn’t like “other lawyers that make up lawsuits to make money,” and that this felt like an example of that.

Newman-Bale said he had ideological issues with the lawsuit, based on his belief in free speech and the personal responsibilities of parents and students.

But he said he had to “separate” those personal opinions from what’s best for the district.

At the Center for Democracy and Technology, Caitlin Vogus promotes law and policy to support people’s free expression rights on the Internet. She told Bridge that these type of lawsuits raise some important questions, including:

  • How do we address the harms people claim social media companies are causing young people?
  • How do we balance that with protecting young people’s access to seek out information and express themselves online?

“We can’t ignore the positive effects it can have, too,” Vogus said, noting how students often use social media to fight for political change, citing, for instance, students leading school walkouts to protest gun violence.

©2023 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Activist Post reports regularly about risks associated with social media, excessive screen use and exposure, and unsafe technologies.  For more information, visit our archives.

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