Facebook denies censorship in closing of Paris user’s page

PARIS — Lawyers for Facebook Inc. denied the company engaged in censorship when it shut down the account of a French user after he posted a photograph of a famous 19th century painting of a naked woman’s genitals and lower torso.

Frederic Durand-Baissas, 59, a primary school teacher in Paris, has sued the powerful social network in French court, claiming Facebook violated his freedom of speech in 2011 by abruptly removing his profile.

Durand-Baissas’ account was suspended hours after he posted a photo of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a painting from 1866 that depicts female genitalia, the teacher has alleged. The case was heard on Thursday.

His lawyers have asked a Paris civil court to order Facebook Inc. to reactivate the account and to pay Durand-Baissas 20,000 euros ($23,500) in damages. Durand-Baissas also wants Facebook to explain why his account was closed.

“Calling Courbet a pornographer, me who loves Courbet, is to call me a pornographer,” Durand-Baissas told The Associated Press in an interview before the trial. He didn’t attend Thursday’s hearing.

Lawyers for Facebook argued the lawsuit should be dismissed on the grounds that Durand-Baissas allegedly didn’t sue the right Facebook entity. The teacher should have sued Facebook Ireland, the web host for its service in France, and not the California-based parent company, Facebook Inc., they said.

“Facebook Inc. can’t explain why Facebook Ireland deactivated Mr. Durand-Baissas’ account,” lawyer Caroline Lyannaz said in court Thursday.

“This is a mere case of contractual termination,” Lyannaz added. “There is no violation of freedom of speech here.”

Defense lawyers also said Durand-Baissas had not provided evidence to show the account was closed because of the Courbet painting.

Durand-Baissas’ lawyer, Stephane Cottineau, alleged that Facebook was relying on “legal quibbles” to avoid dealing with the core issue.

“Facebook is shunning any debate on freedom of expression and censorship,” Cottineau said.

Facebook’s lawyers also told the court that Durand-Baissas used a pseudonym to create both the first account and a second one he opened immediately. The social network has rules prohibiting members from using false names.

The teacher also was able to post photographs of the Courbet painting on the second account, which remains active, company lawyers said.

Durand-Baissas said he didn’t want to use Facebook under his real name because he’s a teacher. His lawyer added that pseudonym use has been recognized as a privacy right in French case law.

Cottineau said the first Facebook account was active for more two years and the second account has been for nearly seven years with no warnings from Facebook.

To back the request for damages, the teacher’s lawyers said he lost contact information for hundreds of Facebook “friends” and all his previous posts when the first account was closed without notice.

Defense lawyers said Facebook can’t reactivate Durand-Baissas’ first account because all data is removed 90 days after a suspension. They said Durand-Baissas suffered no harm because he was able to open another account quickly.

Facebook’s current policy appears 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.”

The trial came after years of Facebook trying to stay out of a French courtroom. The company had argued that under its terms of service, lawsuits like Durand-Baissas’ could only be heard by a specific court in California, where Facebook is headquartered.

A Paris appeals court dismissed the argument in 2016. The civil court’s ruling in Durand-Baissas’ case is expected on March 15.