Social Media Faux Pas: Defamation Lawsuits

Social media and defamatory lawsuitsExposed

Have you ever thought {after the fact} you shouldn't have said or written something and wished you could take it back? I certainly have. Well, the advent of Social Media platforms like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and blogs just made those types of faux pas even harder to smooth over, ignore or forgive and forget.

I had intended to write about digital legacies today; that is, what happens to online accounts, websites, etc. when the owner of the accounts dies. While that topic is quite interesting and sure to affect most of us, I'm tabling that post until next week when I discuss other estate planning issues. Instead, I want to talk about a few other social media issues that have been brought to my attention as I prepare for a panel discussion.

On Friday, I will be joining 3 other attorneys on a panel at the MSP Social Media Breakfast hosted by Thomson Reuters. The topic up for discussion is social media and the law. This is a broad subject and will allow for various points to be brought up ranging from employment issues to copyright infringement to use of information from social media accounts in the courts and on and on.

Case Studies

A few months ago, I wrote about courts recently allowing information from personal Facebook accounts to be included in discovery requests. Courts have ruled information on such sites is not confidential even if it's viewable by only certain people or "friends" of the account holder. There are more and more social media issues making their way into the court system.

In the last few weeks, there have been several news stories involving social media and lawsuits. Two of the three I'm going to focus on are actually occurring locally. All three lawsuits involve someone publishing a statement or statements online about another person that didn't go over well with the person in question; in other words, all involve alleged defamation.

  • Moore v. Hoff a/k/a Johnny Northside

Hoff authors a well-read blog, The Adventures of Johnny Northside, here in the Twin Cities. Moore filed suit against Hoff back in 2009 claiming he had defamed him in a post and allowing his comment page to become a "defamation zone" that ended up costing Moore his job. This lawsuit was finally tried in court last week. A jury found in favor of Moore, directing Hoff to pay $60,000 in damages to Moore. Hoff has vowed to appeal.

According to court documents and Johnny Northside, the trouble started when Hoff reported that Moore had been involved in mortgage fraud. Hoff argued that his statements and readers' comments regarding Moore were protected speech, but jurors disagreed. Hoff maintains the statements he published were true.

  • Spooner v. The Associated Press

NBA Referee Spooner filed suit against the Associated Press and one of its sports reporters, Jon Krawczynski, just yesterday. This suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, also centers on an alleged defamatory statement.

This claim is based on a tweet by AP reporter Krawczynski made during a Minnesota Timberwolves game in January. According to the Complaint, the tweet said, "Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he'd 'get it back' after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That's NBA officiating folks."

Spooner claims he did not say that to Rambis {The MN Timberwolves coach} and further alleges that this tweet caused him to be subjected to a disciplinary investigation by his employer and disparaged his professional reputation as a NBA referee.

  • Rojas v. Schneider

Schneider has built an entire blog on exposing everything she can about a level 2 sex offender who molested her minor daughter several years ago. In fact, she has included negative information about every member of his family. It's not clear whether these accusations regarding Rojas' family are true or not, but Rojas has filed suit against Schneider because he can't get a job and he blames it on her blog. Now let's recall that Rojas is a level 2 sex offender, which probably has a bit to do with not being able to land a job. Nonetheless, he has filed suit and Schneider has now filed a counter-claim against Rojas.

It's worth noting that Washington state, the venue in this matter, repealed its libel laws in 2009. I was unable to find Rojas' Complaint or find what law his claims are based on.

I will be keeping an eye on these cases and any others that may pop up as they make their way through the court systems.

Avoiding a Lawsuit

Each of these cases has a very different set of facts, but all involve social media and alleged defamatory statements. Whether you have a blog, Twitter account, Facebook account or any other social media networking site account this is something to think about before hitting the publish or share button.

While social media is a new thing, defamation is not. And the same laws apply, even if the location and access of the defamatory material has changed. I found an article with great pointers about steering clear of a lawsuit, entitled How to Avoid a Social Media Lawsuit; bear in mind it was written from a corporate standpoint.

The basic idea is still the same. It doesn't matter if you write or tweet or post about parenting, food, sports, local events, fashion or a potpourri of subjects; you should always choose your words carefully. And think twice before publishing, especially if you are particularly emotional about the subject matter.

The Scoop

While these types of lawsuits in the social media realm are still a rarity, it may become more common place as our online society evolves. However, the reality is that suing bloggers and tweeters {with exception to corporate types like the AP & their sports reporter} isn't going to pay off in the end; quite literally. Most social media participants don't have deep pockets like that of a magazine or TV station, for instance; the type of entity more traditionally slapped with a defamatory lawsuit. I know I certainly don't...in case you were wondering. Over and out...

Anna

 

A follow-up note to today’s post:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines the following as:

Defamation n. 1. The act of harming the reputation of another by making a false statement to a third person. If the alleged defamation involves a matter of public concern, the plaintiff is constitutionally required to prove both the statement's falsity and the defendant's fault. 2. A false written or oral statement that damages another's reputation. See libel; slander

Libel n. 1. A defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium, esp. writing but also a picture, sign, or electronic broadcast. Libel is classified as both a crime and a tort but is no longer prosecuted as a crime. — Also termed defamatory libel. 2. The act of making such a statement; publication of defamatory matter by written or printed words, by its embodiment in physical form or by any other form of communication that has the potentially harmful qualities characteristic of written or printed words. See defamation. Cf. slander

Slander n. 1. A defamatory assertion expressed in a transitory form, esp. speech. Damages for slander, unlike those for libel, are not presumed and thus must be proved by the plaintiff (unless the defamation is slander per se). 2. The act of making such a statement. See defamation. Cf. libel

You might also like:

Our Comfortable Connection: The Information You Post Online Could Be Used Against You

Don’t Take It Personally: Tips for Making Social Media Sites Secure Places

Welcome to the 21st Century: Laws to Protect Children Using the Internet

www.MotherlyLaw.com

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