Click and You’re Sued?

In today’s electronic world of websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., sharing one’s feelings with others is as easy as clicking a mouse or hitting “post” on a smart phone. The author can even remain anonymous if s/he chooses. But, what if the statements that are shared online aren’t true? Defamation – a false statement made to a third party about a public or private person – is no laughing matter.

Defamation comes in two types: slander, which is spoken, and libel, which is written.   Slanderous statements are harder to prove because the third person who heard the false statement must agree to come forward and testify that s/he heard the statement.  Libelous statements, on the other hand, are in writing and can easily be presented as evidence in a lawsuit.

Let’s say you take a picture of someone and post it on Facebook with a comment.  Or, you get really mad at how you were treated at a store and blog about your experience.  Neither of these actions would be considered actionable defamation unless you made statements about a person that were false.  Truth is a defense to defamation.  So, if you post online that Jane is a criminal, that would not be defamation for which she can collect damages unless, in fact, Jane has never been charged with a crime in her life.  Or, if you are involved in a terrible custody dispute and you say terrible things about your ex on your Facebook page, that would not be actionable defamation unless the statements you made were false.

In a contentious divorce case[1] in Arizona a few years ago, the ex-husband’s new wife posted a couple of articles on a website in which she accused the ex-wife and her new husband of sexual and criminal misconduct.  The court found that defamation had occurred and awarded the wronged parties $150,000.00 in compensatory damages and $50,000.00 in punitive damages.

Having a mean thought about someone will cost you nothing.  Posting that thought, if it’s false, could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Always think before you post.

[1] Larue v. Brown, 235 Ariz. 440, 333 P.3d 767 (Ariz. App., 2014)

Written by Attorney Lori Brown.

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