Hard to believe that five years ago Facebook was just beginning and Twitter is even 4-years-old.
As new technologies increase our ability to reach out and say what’s on our minds, we often think past the basics of how social responsibility should apply to our electronic speech. It’s amazing to read postings where people are called all sorts of unfriendly names, including some that would not be used in polite company.
Are people less concerned with what they post on the web or in a blog; perhaps writing things they would never say face-to-face to another person? Well, it’s good to remember that the web’s anonymity is not an electronic shield for libel action. In 1997, the Supreme Court said that the Internet allows individuals to become town criers, “with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”
Some experts argue that the net provides greater freedom than any other forms of media. But should it apply in all situations? The answer is not an easy one. Libel generally requires identification of the person being libeled and the person or persons doing the deed. And, libels that occur on the web can proceed just like any other defamation case.
On a blog it’s often difficult, but not impossible to know the name of the person posting the comment. Look at some facts: In most cases courts have dismissed lawsuits or have refused to make identification of anonymous critics, but there are some exceptions. In 2009, a Cook County (IL) judge ruled that the identity of an anonymous post to a newspaper’s website had to be released to a village trustee who believed she had been libeled. Similar rulings have taken place in North Carolina and elsewhere. In 2006, a Florida court awarded a plaintiff $11.3 million in a defamation lawsuit stemming from a web posting.
So, it is definitely possible to unmask an anonymous posting. However, Maryland’s highest court has probably established the bar for determining whether to unmask an anonymous poster. The court ruled that in order to unmask an unknown blogger, a person would have to establish all the facts for a case of defamation first. (Remember, too, that defamation differs from state to state as it is treated as a civil wrong.)
Probably most of us would argue that for the most egregious cases, the courts should provide victims with some way to right an injustice. But not all criticism is defamation. So, it’s one thing to call a person a fool but it’s quite another to call a person a crook.
A good rule of thumb is to never write something that you might want to take back tomorrow. Things posted on the web may have a long life.
Fritz Messere is the Dean of the School of Communication, Media and the Arts at State University of New York at Oswego. He holds the rank of Professor of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in the department of Communication Studies. Messere is the author of four books on media and media production including Broadcasting, Cable, the Internet and Beyond, (coauthored with Joe Dominick), McGraw-Hill, now in its 6th edition.
- Internet privacy not so private in court (ajc.com)
- Be Careful What You Write (blogher.com)
- Courtney Love Defamation Lawsuit Could Set Legal Precedent [Twitter] (gawker.com)