Hurtful messages, even outright lies, splashed up on the web for all to see. When online thugs are bent on defaming you, seems like you can’t do anything to stop them!
Turns out you can’t say whatever you want, on Facebook or any other social networking site. Even though dozens of sites give us all a little power over someone else’s online reputation, doesn’t mean it’s entirely legal.
“They can change your image for you. You don’t have control,” 17-year-old Yasemin Akbaba said. “A lot of people will say thing to you they won’t say to your face,” 18-year-old Trisha Comuzzi said.
Is it bad behavior? Yes. Is it illegal? Sometimes. So can you say whatever you want online? “That is definitely not the case, yet a lot of people believe they can,” Attorney David Ardia said. Ardia directs the “Citizens Media Law Project” at Harvard’s Berkman Center. He said just because you’re online, doesn’t mean the laws don’t apply. “People tend to shoot from the hip a little more. They tend to say things they perhaps wouldn’t say in another context because they’re doing it online,” Ardia said
He said what you write online is protected under the first amendment free speech, as long as what you say is true. If it’s not, it could cross the line into libel and slander. “Someone makes a factual statement, it turns out that statement is not true and it harms another person’s reputation,” Ardia said.
For instance, just a couple of months ago, the New York Post reported police arrested Paul Franco. His ex-girlfriend accused him of hijacking her Facebook page, changing her sexual preference to gay, and then demanding cash to get her profile back. In the UK, a court fined a 29-year-old man after he sent offensive messages to his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. In California, a judge has ruled a 15-year-old boy can sue his classmates and their parents for defamation because the kids allegedly posted anti-gay threats on a classmate’s website. Then there’s this case in Arkansas. A 16-year-old boy is suing his own mother for slander. He claims she hacked into his account and changed his password. She says he posted some questionable things on his page, and she was just protecting him.
“Although we hear a lot about these cases being filed, very few of these cases win in the end,” Ardia said. So what if you didn’t have to let people know who you are? You can easily post comments to just about any news story on the web and you can remain anonymous.
A judge in Cleveland may have found out the hard way. She’s accused of anonymously posting comments to stories on the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s website. Reporters traced them, and discovered her comments were related to cases she was presiding over. The paper wrote a story exposing her. Now she’s suing for $50 million.
It’s unclear how any of these cases will turn out, but they do serve as a warning. “Be careful of what you say. Even when you think you’re anonymous and you’re gonna get away with it. It’s rare that you can,” Ardia said.
Next time you get behind that keyboard, give that comment a second read. If you can’t say it to someone’s face, definitely don’t say it online.