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Words & Legal Woes

Social Media and a Case for Defamation

Here are a couple of legal terms for you: slander and libel. I know what you are thinking. I’m a law-abiding type, so why do i even want to know about it? Well, if you are one of the billion or so people using social media (tweeting, Facebooking, Pinning and the like), listen up – because you could get sued without even knowing you’ve done something wrong.

First of all, a little law school 101. Libel and slander are terms used to describe different types of defamation, or unlawful injury to the reputation of another. Slander is when the damaging statement is spoken (think s for spoken), and libel is when it is written (think L for library). And in order to be guilty of libel or slander, the following requirements must be met:

1. The statement must be false.Put another way, true statements do not qualify as defamation. Sounds simple, but there are nuances. Let’s say i wrote something like, “My child’s basketball coach is a jerk.” Well, that’s a matter of opinion. But let’s say i wrote, “My child’s basketball coach is a jerk because she kicks the kids.” in that example, i am using untrue statements to back-up my opinion, which qualifies the statement as false.

2. The statement must be about an identifiable person, business, or entity. In other words, using the example above, my child’s basketball coach is an identifible individual, even though i have not used a name.Likewise, a statement that identifies all basketball coaches at a certain local organization would meet the test.

3. The statement must be damaging to the person (or entity’s) reputation.For example, an untrue statement about a basketball coach having dyed her hair purple is probably not reputation damaging, whereas a statement about her kicking the children would be.

So, how do these fancy terms apply to you and your dedication to updating the social media world with your thoughts on an hourly basis? Assuming you would never make a false statement about another person, there is still another way you could be guilty of libel, so keep reading.

Because re-publishing a defamatory statement is also unlawful. In other words, if your friend says something untrue and harmful to another’s reputation, and you post that information on social media, you could be committing libel. And this applies, even if you attribute the false statement to your (meanie) friend.

Think about that for a second, and consider how a pretty simple mistake could land you in court. So, watch what you write and say about others.Common decency should probably prevent most cases of libel and slander, but if you are feeling particularly feisty, remember to check yourself before committing an unlawful act.

There, now you are ready to take the bar exam – or at least ace an essay question on defamation.

Disclaimer: Lest any of you decide to try and find an identifiable basketball coach whom i may have libeled in this article, my daughter does not play basketball, yet. And, actually, my favorite childhood coach was my basketball coach. Indeed, no coaches were harmed, or defamed, in the writing of this article.

Kelly Hall, Esq., is a full-time mom and part-time attorney. Through Legal Ease in RFM, she contributed articles about family law, legislation, and other legal issues for four years until she moved out of the area with her family in 2014.
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