Be careful what you post online

do admit, I’m not a lawyer, but I have dealt with intellectual copyright issues—both literary and photographic my entire adult life. Understanding copyright and freedom of speech issues are extremely important if you are in my profession. My understanding is that the laws are always in favor of the creator as long as they are not defamatory against another person or company.

 

The First Amendment right to speak or write, anonymously or otherwise, is not unlimited and can lead to a lawsuit. Although bloggers and private citizens may have a free-speech right to say what they want online, it does not protect them from being sued by the person they’ve written about. Simply put, the U.S. government gives you the right to speak your mind, but YOU are not protected from being sued for making defamatory comments, even if they are posted on your personal web page or even anonymously. I can hear you right now saying “I have the right to give my opinion anywhere I want.” You do have the right, but you can get sued for defamation if your words are harmful.

Just what is defamation? Simply put, it refers to making statements that harm another’s reputation. It encompasses both libel and slander. Libel generally refers to written defamation, while slander refers to spoken defamation.

Defamatory comments might include comments such as accusing a person of having committed a crime or simply saying that a chef at a particular restaurant is an awful cook. Former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote that the essence of a defamation claim is the right to protect one’s good name, one’s dignity and worth as a human being.

Time after time, people are surprised when they make comments online like “My mechanic is a crook” or “My dentist is an uneducated thief”—and find themselves in court. It all sounds like personal opinions, and in the United States you have every right to say and write what you like. The truth is that your dentist also has every right to sue you because you gave him or her all the evidence needed to win by posting it online. You can be sued for defamation, with the dentist claiming that the comments were false and damaging to his or her reputation. First of all, your dentist is educated, and unless he or she has been convicted of theft, he or she is not a thief in the eyes of the law. With those two points against you, it’s likely you’ll lose your case.

In a recent example, a man was sued when he vented his anger online after his wife suffered a stroke during a routine surgery. He posted a letter, on an open forum, regarding his concerns about his wife’s medical care. The surgeon sued the man and the owner of the website for defamation and won a large cash award. What the husband wrote popped up on the first page of Google search results for nearly three months before it was removed.

More often than not, judges are ruling against people and blog sites, forcing them to identify the Internet addresses of individuals who post negative comments on their page. Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they post something online. There’s a new generation of people who can publish whatever they want online but have little understanding of the legal dangers they face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something as simple as, “I agree with so and so on that one. That guy is a thief.” Simply agreeing with and expanding on a post could be seen as defamatory.

The Supreme Court has said that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech includes the right to publish “anonymous” pamphlets, but recently, judges have been ruling that online speakers do not have a right to remain anonymous. It might be that the days of conducting “Internet smear campaigns via anonymous postings” are over.
— In another example, a woman recently posted negative comments about a contractor on Yelp and Angie’s List and found herself in a $750,000 Internet defamation lawsuit. She wrote that the contractor did damage to her home, forced her to pay an invoice for work the contractor didn’t do, and took valuables from her home. The contractor said the statements were false and it caused his business to suffer. The woman was unable to prove any of her accusations.

Under federal law—47 U.S.C. § 230—websites like Yelp and Angie’s List are protected from being sued for defamation, but the people who post there are legally responsible for what they write and lawsuits can be filed against them. Same goes with Topix and other anonymous open forums. To be clear, these protections do not extend to the person who posts. Using an anonymous name gives you NO protection of any sort. When asked by a court, Topix must provide the identity of the person who made the comment.

Be aware the next time you go online to complain about a restaurant, a contractor, a former boss or a public official; you may be setting yourself up for lawsuit—and whether you win in court or lose, it’s an expensive ordeal. Lawsuits can be life-changing experiences and both mentally and fiscally draining. So think twice before pressing the “post” button.

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