June 25, 2019 | 73° F

Trial, terror in civilian court

People take advantage of the fact that the Internet is a free space to share information. They post Facebook statuses and tweet updates, links and personal thoughts day in and day out on these social networking sites. Voicing an opinion, or claiming a statement as a fact in the cyber world can be a very risky thing to do. Now not only do people have to worry about not getting jobs, or into colleges of their choice, they also have to be concerned with being sued for libel. We have to treat cyber space as real life to keep from getting ourselves into trouble.

According to CNN, rock music's own bad-girl Courtney Love is being sued for libel for slamming a designer with defamatory statements on Twitter. The suit claims that after a disagreement over what Love should pay Dawn Simorangkir for the clothes she designed, Love posted allegedly derogatory and false comments about the designer—among them that she had a "history of dealing cocaine" on her now-discontinued Twitter feed. It is not just celebrities being bogged down with libel suits for statements they make on Twitter. Illinois resident, Amanda Bonnen, complained via Twitter about issues she was having with her landlord. She tweeted to another user: "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment is bad for you? Horizon Realty thinks it's ok." Horizon Group Management LLC, the company that owned the apartment in question, sued Bonnen for libel over the alleged tweet. Horizon is seeking $50,000 in damages. The question at had now is how to handle libel cases based on things said over the Internet on social networking sites. These cases have to be watched closely because they address new unconfronted areas of the law.

The 2009 Dictionary word of the year is "unfriend," which should show how the popularity of social media has risen and caught on at a very fast pace. You cannot walk passed people on laptops and computers on campus with out seeing at least a few people perusing Facebook, and checking up what their followers tweeted. But as used to having social media Web sites as America is, it is still a relatively new technology. As little as five years ago, these cases would not even be happening because sites like Twitter were only ideas in the making. The laws for people to abide by on these sites have a lot of gray area because it all depends on how you are viewing the cyber world. It is either a complete separate entity with its own rules and regulations, or a continuation of everyday life. Another challenge for the law is the way the Web crosses state and international borders. If a Facebook user in England sues another user in Australia for defamatory comments posted on the site, who has jurisdiction over the case? Which country's laws should be applied: England's, Australia's or those of the United States, where Facebook is based?

These factors all make things more complicated when dealing with how to handle libel suits from social networking sites. Users should be more careful with what they are saying, because they are putting into a public sphere. It is not like real space where a statement can travel by word of mouth and be proven immediately that you were the individual who made the statement first. Also, word of mouth also can alter statements. If someone has an issue with something you tweeted or posted, they can simply click on your user name and be brought right to the original statement. If in reality you would not walk right up to a person and say something completely false and damaging of the person's reputation, so it should not be done on the Internet. When one posts information online knowing it is false, but wouldn't ordinarily say the information in person, that is when it is treated as a separate space.

But even if it is separate, sites are still connected to the real world. Friends, co-workers professors, etc. have social networking pages to keep in touch. If you wouldn't walk up to your dean of students and tell them that you "are eating the best sandwich ever," or "just had a super fun night with your boyfriend," then chances are they wouldn't want to see it posted on Facebook or Twitter either. There is also the issue with posting defamatory comments towards co-workers on these sites because then there is gray area around the lines of harassment. Would company harassment rules work outside the office on this social media sphere, where both other co-workers and just normal friends could see? There are offices that do not block Facebook and Twitter that could have people posting things during the workday. That could be another factor considered in a libel case.

It doesn't seem weird unless you are thinking of it in that context. Posted information online is just something that is becoming more normal for people to participate in. Even though it is a norm, you still have to watch what you say. The more normal it becomes the law will catch up with technology in time. There will always be problem with the descrepency between what is posted as fact and opinion, but that will work itself out. Many libel suits do not go to court, but still a new can of worms is being opened by having another place for people to post comments that are false either with out realization or with intent to hurt someone's reputation.


Josh Baker

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