Law treats Facebook bashing as online libel
March 29, 2010 —
As society moved into the age of blogging, Facebook and text messaging, it seems that the law has struggled to keep up. But this does not mean that the Internet is a free-for-all and consequence-free area.
“I don’t see any difference between posting something on the Internet and putting it in the paper,” said Christopher Enge, an SVSU professor of law.
There isn’t much of a difference in the law’s eyes either.
Spoken defamation is called slander, while written is libel. For a message to be considered defamatory, it must be
•False and damaging about another person
•An unprivileged publication or communication to another party (there are exceptions for privileged communication, such as what a congressman would be allowed to say on the Senate floor)
•A nonpublic figure. For public figures to prove defamation, they have to prove that there was malicious intent.
•A claim that caused the defamed harm.
Although it is difficult to go one day without encountering joking and false representations of people on the Internet, most of these cases would not hold up because of the difficulty to prove that harm was done.
If there was clear financial damage, or if someone was denied employment because of the libel, the case would go somewhere.
But according to authors Richard Mann and Barry Roberts in their book Business Law and the Regulation of Business, so far there is “a considerable legal vacuum [which] has created considerable uncertainty in business transactions and numerous opportunities for abuse.”
Because of this, only a handful of cases have concerned Internet libel over the past decade, and those that succeeded in court mainly dealt with Internet publications that have harmed the victims’ professional lives.
Posting anonymously will still land someone in trouble if the defamed can prove they’ve been financially harmed. As long as the ISP can be traced, anonymity will not keep anyone hidden for long.
Financial damages do not have to be direct, but can include psychological damages and corresponding treatment. The First Amendment does not give a person the right to infringe on the rights of other people.
Ambiguity also only goes so far. Situations like those in “Gossip Girl” might make for interesting adolescent reading and television viewing, but in reality could end up in a legal mess.
In order to avoid this, trash talk should be kept vague. Or, “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to their face,” Enge says. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.... Sometimes, your kindergarten teacher is right.”
Many students are unaware of the legal action that could be taken against them for inappropriate Internet publication. Exercise science fourth-year Anthony Guinn didn’t know that Facebook posts can be illegally defamatory, but he often sees “a lot of posts that I think should stay private, and definitely need to stay off the Internet.”
Even when the post isn’t sent to a mass audience, it can still be libelous. The publication audience required for it to be defamation is only one — as long as the audience isn’t the defamed him- or herself.
This means that text messaging is just as likely a medium for libel as the Internet, and the rules are the same.
Most students have, at some time, experienced some form of Internet bad-mouthing, even if it was entirely in jest.
Pre-athletic training sophomore Katie Waterstraut shared, “I’ve been in petty high school drama fights over the Internet; so I’m sure someone has said something about me at some point in time. But I always watch what I say.”
It’s important to know your rights as someone who could be defamed online. It is up to the individual where the line is drawn between a well-meant joke and a harmful, malicious attack on his or her character.
“People need to be more conscious about what they send over the Internet or texting,” said communication senior Matt Pierson. “Whenever you type a message over these networks or cell phones, it is important to take into account who is receiving the message, and who they are going to show. If somebody wants to text something offensive, they should think twice. That goes for Facebook statuses as well.”