SPLC joins free speech groups in filing an amicus brief in First Amendment Herndon v. Netflix case

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Learn more about the amicus brief SPLC jointly filed with other First Amendment groups making the case against restricting certain speech to younger audiences in the face of a 15-year-old’s tragic suicide after watching the series 13 Reasons Why on Netflix.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), PEN America, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) jointly filed an amicus brief on Monday to support the First Amendment rights of Netflix in a lawsuit over the series 13 Reasons Why, which depicted suicide.

Netflix is being sued for damages following a 15-year-old girl’s tragic suicide after watching the series. The lawsuit filed in 2022 by the girl’s father, John Herndon of Livermore, CA, alleged that viewers were not adequately warned or shielded from the show’s content. A federal judge dismissed Herndon v. Netflix in 2022; Herndon has appealed.

In its amicus brief, the four free speech organizations argued that the program is fully protected under the First Amendment and therefore Netflix cannot be held liable for the death.

The brief states: “Suicide is an enduring, though tragic, facet of human existence. Many great works of literature, history, and religion depict it, and those works are routinely taught to teenagers. For just some of the most famous literary examples, consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and JulietOthello, and Julius Caesar, as well as the novels Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Les Miserables, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby. … Yet all the books, plays, and films that include such suicides are of course fully protected by the First Amendment, whether or not they include minors among their audience, and however they may be sold or marketed.”

Jonathan Gaston-Falk, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said: “The plaintiff’s demands fail to take into account the far-reaching ramifications of excluding groups of ‘impressionable audiences’ from essential conversations, blocking student journalists from engaging and informing their peers in an era already fraught with misinformation.”

Kate Ruane, Sy Syms director of the U.S. Free Expression programs at PEN America, said: “Understandably it is difficult to adhere to principles when faced with a tragedy like this one. But to hold Netflix liable in this case would violate constitutional protections, court precedent and, in addition to chilling Netflix’s speech, would undoubtedly risk chilling the speech of other writers, filmmakers, artists and creators on sensitive topics like suicide, drug addiction, or mental health. ”

FIRE Attorney Jeff Zeman said: “Freedom of speech isn’t the freedom to speak in a vacuum; it necessarily includes the right to promote your speech to an audience. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, Dead Poets Society or 13 Reasons Why, fictional works that portray difficult topics like suicide don’t lose their First Amendment protection just because their creators seek to find an audience.”

About the Student Press Law Center

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Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to promote, support and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC operates a free, confidential legal hotline as well as public resources. SPLC also provides training, educational resources and support to the grassroots non-partisan New Voices movement, seeking state-based legislative support for student press freedom. The SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C. 

Contact: media@splc.org