Many people who post on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have noticed that these communications platforms enforce service terms and rules.
Failure to abide by “community standards” issued by these corporate giants will land the offender in “jail” with account privileges and capabilities suspended or even permanently disabled.
But did you know that you can actually be sued for negative comments you make online?
While posting mean-spirited comments about someone else is not, in and of itself, illegal or sufficient grounds for a lawsuit, there is a possibility that the target of those nasty remarks might claim the slurs caused personal harm or a damaged reputation. This is called defamation and it is illegal.
Most countries in the world today have laws that protect citizens from defamation, “the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person.”
The all-encompassing term “defamation of character” includes any statement that hurts someone’s reputation. Written defamation is called libel. Oral (spoken) defamation is called slander.
Defamation is not a crime, but it is a tort – a civil wrong, as distinguished from a criminal wrong. A person who has been defamed can file a civil lawsuit against the person who did the defaming for damages (usually a large amount of money).
There is a fine legal line between free speech without the worry of getting sued and preventing people’s lives being ruined by lies spread about them.
The family of Nicholas Sandmann has just challenged that legal line in regards to the Washington Post fakery invented as headline news that ran for days, portraying the teen high-schooler as a racist “smirker” – which he wasn’t. Sandmann stands a good chance of winning his case, according to Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz who opined:
“All he has to do is prove that they told untruths about him and those untruths resulted in harm to him.”
U.S. states make their own rules on what constitutes defamation. Different states have different laws in this regard. However, in general, proof of defamation hinges on demonstrating that a statement (something spoken, written, pictured, or gestured) has all of the following qualities:
• Published – A third party heard or saw the statement
• False – Most opinions don’t count since they can’t be proved true/false
• Injurious – Reputations were hurt by the false statement
• Unprivileged – the person making the statement has no absolute right to make that statement at that time
Lawmakers, public figures, courtroom witnesses, and certain others are granted immunity from liability for statements made in the legislative chamber or in official materials, even if they say or write things that would otherwise be defamatory.
Dershowitz believes that the Sandmann legal team has a “significant chance” of winning this civil defamation lawsuit since the MAGA-hat wearing youth was “thrust into the public by the Washington Post and other media. He’s just a high school kid and he doesn’t have the heavy burden to prove if you were a public figure.”
The Harvard legal expert said that “it’s a far easier case than if he were some kind of an elected official or a high government official or if he had thrust himself into the news and made himself into a public figure.”
Social media posts now reach an international audience. Offensive posts are great business for lawyers who are capitalizing on the increasing number of “damaging statements [that] are made on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or MySpace” by people who may not even realize that their trollish negativity constitute libelous statements which “can cause businesses to lose clients; in fact, these types of things can literally put a company out of business.”
There are two ways to legally defend against a charge of defamation:
1. Prove that your statements were true. Since defamation involves false misrepresentations, your case will be dismissed. The bad news is that getting to this point in the legal system takes a whole lot of time and money.
2. Prove your post was personal opinion rather than a potentially verifiable fact. This goes beyond using “imho” (in my humble opinion) in your post. The statement, “I think my neighbor killed his wife,” may sound like an opinion, but readers of this post who knew the poster might well believe that insider neighborly information alters the meaning to that of a fact that could be verified.
There is a legal test called Statement-Of-Verifiable-Fact which relies on the context of the offending statement. The remark, “That dude is a loser,” can’t be verified as true or false – it is merely an opinion concerning a person of questionable economic means. But claiming “That dude has never been to college,” could be proved or disproved with relative ease.
If you are having trouble telling the difference between statements which court a libel lawsuit and those which don’t, here are some excellent examples, courtesy Investopedia:
Calling someone a crook
Accusing someone of stealing
Charging someone with being an Islamic terrorist
Referring to a game-show contestant as a “total idiot”
Saying a politician is “ruining the country”
Calling the Beatles “the worst band you’ve ever heard”
Posting humor, sarcasm, and your opinion is all legal and above board. Defamation occurs when lies are spread about other people.
Knowing your civil rights can pay off for both offense and defense.
But wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where no one resorted to baseless accusations against others? Pinch me, I’m dreaming.