An Israeli court has ruled Twitter cannot ignore its authority and must respond to allegations made in a libel suit by a well-known Israeli journalist against the social media giant over its refusal to remove a sexually offensive tweet made against her. In the ruling, the judge said Twitter’s response to the journalist’s allegations were a form of victim blaming
In August 2019, Linoy Bar-Gefen, who works for Israel’s state broadcaster, sued the American company for 300,000 shekels over its refusal to remove a disparaging and sexually offensive tweet posted anonymously against her and her partner Ben Zelicha (full disclosure: Zelicha formerly edited for Haaretz).
On Sunday the Herzliya Magistrate’s Court ruled that Twitter cannot evade the Israeli court’s authority in a hearing on the lawsuit. Judge Gilad Hess was harshly critical of the company and ruled that it must pay 20,000 shekel in court costs due to Twitter’s attorneys’ “contemptuous and inappropriate” treatment of Bar-Gefen.
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Bar-Gefen contacted Twitter about the matter twice, and both times the company refused to remove the tweet. Only after being contacted by her attorney, Guy Ophir, did Twitter consent to remove the tweet. The account behind the offensive tweet, which Ophir says is filled with similar disturbing tweets, has still not been removed by Twitter.
Since the company’s headquarters and the bulk of its activity are based abroad, Bar-Gefen’s attorneys, Ophir and Roy Ben-David, requested and received the court’s permission to start proceedings despite the fact one of the parties was outside the jurisdiction. This is a procedural request in which Israeli courts can agree to hear a case involving a non-Israeli national or a non-Israeli legal entity.
Twitter sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that the Israeli court is not the appropriate forum. The company further argued that Bar-Gefen herself uses coarse language on Twitter, including comments of a sexual nature.
These arguments were both rejected by the judge and even backfired against Twitter. Judge Hess decided to impose the high court costs on the company, which is not typical at this early stage of proceedings. Covering court costs was justified, the judge said, due to what he deemed the purposefully broad nature of the company’s response to the court, which put a disproportionately large burden on Bar-Gefen’s lawyers in preparing their response, the judge said. Judge Hess said he “believes that the appeal [filed by Twitter] includes baseless claims that ought not to have been made,” but he reserved most of his criticism for the problematic claims made by Twitter’s lawyers.
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“I believe that the appeal filing includes disparaging and inappropriate references to” Bar-Gefen, the judge wrote. “While it is legitimate and reasonable for the applicants to present a strong and forceful defense against the lawsuit or against the very proceedings, I do not consider it legitimate in this context to cite the respondent’s sexual past in such an extensive and shameful way when...this is not pertinent to the matter at hand.
“I naively thought that long gone were the days in which the victim is blamed, especially when we are dealing with sexual offenses,” the judge said, describing Twitter’s response as having a “sexist tone”. He added that instead of addressing the fact that the tweet in question likely constituted a form of sexual harassment, the social media platform chose to “decidate pages to [Bar-Gefen’s] sexual past in a coarse and degrading manner.”
“Moreover, in addition to the extensive focus on the respondent’s sexual past, the application and response are filled with harsh and crude comments about the respondent, for no objective purpose.” The judge also faulted Twitter for accusing Bar-Gefen of “not telling the truth and misleading the court,” again with no substantive reason for using such language.
Asked about Twitter’s claims, Bar-Gefen’s lawyer Ophir replied, “Twitter’s statements in its pleading to the court were extremely sexist and chauvinistic. Twitter’s representatives reflect an approach that says that if a woman expresses herself in liberated language then it’s permissible to sexually harass her, because she asked for it. These shameful things were written in a court pleading that is protected from prosecution, otherwise we could have sued Twitter itself for sexual harassment over what it said in its response.”
Twitter declined to comment.