Defamation lawsuits have arisen in recent years from social media websites. These lawsuits are based on alleged violations of The Communication Decency Act of 1996. To prove defamation in these cases is a tricky proposition because of people’s perception of free speech. Not all speech is free speech.
Defamation is defined as making false statements that prove harmful to someone’s reputation or business. To prove defamation, the plaintiff has to prove malice and harm has come to the person in any form whether it is loss of business or friends disappear because of the nature of the posting.
Sticks and Stones
The old adage about words not hurting us takes on a new meaning on social media. There are stories about children harming themselves over postings on social media websites and most recently, a lawsuit came out of a user-generated website where people anonymously post defamatory remarks about people they may or may not know. The lawsuit in question was against the publisher of TheDirty.com and whether this publisher of user-generated content was liable for the post made by the anonymous users of the site. Although the website had a disclaimer stating publisher of the site does not claim accuracy of any content, he became liable because of comments made endorsing one of the post against a former NFL football cheerleader. The ruling in the case set a new precedent because the plaintiff was able to get around The Communication Decency Act of 1996 which, normally shields publishers of media sites and publications from liability. If the publisher had not added his opinion to the postings, he would have triumphed in this lawsuit. The publisher appealed but the judgment was upheld according to U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman because the publisher played a major role in the content of the website.
Around the World
Defamation not only affects us here in the United States, but around the world as well. Tabloids have lost major lawsuits brought on by celebrities in Great Britain and as far away as Monaco. In Canada in 2012, the British Columbia Appeals Court awarded damages stemming from social media postings in a divorce case Nesbitt v Neufeld (2011 BCCA 529). The judge in the case stated, “if the defendant had kept his communications within the confines of the family court litigation, there would have not been a concern. However, the defendant made defamatory postings on Facebook and You Tube. I consulted local Dallas Family Attorney Lisa Baker Canterberry on whether any United States courts had come to the same conclusions. She could not recall any defamation lawsuits being brought in the counties in which she practices (Collin and Denton Counties, Texas). She stated, “Most courts have ‘standing orders’ that advises people in the middle of a divorce how to conduct themselves.” “These standing orders direct both parties involved to refrain from ‘making disparaging remarks regarding the other party in the presence or within the hearing of the children’.” Lisa says parties can be held in contempt of the court if they violate these standing orders. However, Lisa speculates the counties in which she practices will be updating their standing orders sooner than later. The Internet is a venue in which the children could gain access to and see all the bad blood between the parents therefore violating the standing orders.
Each state has different definitions of defamation but one thing is clear- free speech is not as free as it once was because we have become a litigious society. The laws regarding libel and defamation continue to evolve and it is important when using social media to tell a story or convey a message everyone should be careful in what they post. Some people may not care what is said about them but others will take offense and try and sue over it. Ask yourself the question, “Will this harm the person I am posting about?” If you can emphatically say no, then post. If not keep it to yourself!
Expert Law Library http://www.expertlaw.com/library/personal_injury/defamation.html
Internet Defamation Blog http://internetdefamationblog.com/tag/thedirty-com/