A French court ruled Thursday that Facebook failed to fulfill its contractual obligations by closing without prior notice the account of a user who posted a photo of a famous 19th century nude painting.
But the Paris civil court also refused to order the company to restore the account or pay damages as requested by the user, a primary school teacher and art lover. The court said no damages were warranted because he didn’t prove any harm suffered due to the account’s closure and there was no need to order the account reopened because he was able to set up a new account immediately.
The court also said the 60-year-old Parisian teacher, Frederic Durand-Baissas, didn’t prove the deactivation was caused by his posting of the painting.
The judge wrote that Durand-Baissas also didn’t provide evidence that he lost contact information for hundreds of “friends,” as his lawyer argued during a trial last month.
The plaintiff claimed his profile was suspended in 2011 hours after he posted a photo of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a painting from 1866 that depicts female genitalia. He asked the court to order Facebook to reactivate his initial account and to pay him 20,000 euros ($23,500) in damages.
His lawyer, Stephane Cottineau, said that the decision was disappointing and that he would appeal the ruling.
“The court didn’t directly address the issue of censorship, the issue of the difference between a work of art and pornography,” Cottineau said.
Durand-Baissas said it was “a bit frustrating” that the court refrained from saying whether it was a case of censorship and violation of his freedom of speech, as he claimed.
“We have the feeling that even the justice system is afraid of talking about nudity,” Durand-Baissas told The Associated Press after the written ruling was released.
“It was important for me also because, in the French culture, rooted in the Greco-Roman culture, we have lots of nude art,” he said.
In a statement, Delphine Reyre, director of public affairs for Facebook France and Europe, said the company had “taken note” of the court’s decision, but did not elaborate on the ruling itself.
“‘The Origin of the World’ is a painting that has a perfect place on Facebook,” Reyre insisted.
The ruling may have significant commercial, legal and policy implications in the future for Facebook in France, where the company has millions of users.
The court ruled that the relations between Facebook and its users in France are contracts under French consumer law. Facebook had argued consumer law didn’t apply because the service it provides to its users is free.
The court also held that in the event of a legal dispute between Facebook and any users in France, it is French law that applies, and not California law as Facebook argued in one of its contract clauses. As a result, that clause was declared unfair and null.
The judge also annulled as unfair another clause that allowed Facebook to close a user’s account without prior notice and without cause.
Since Durand-Baissas launched his legal action against Facebook in 2011, the company has changed its standards policy regarding nudity to allow postings such as a photo of the Courbet painting. Its standards page now explicitly states: “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”
Associated Press video producer Catherine Gaschka contributed to this report.