Think you can post anything you want on the Internet or on social media? Well, think again!
Nicholas Sandmannn, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, was waiting for a bus at the Lincoln Memorial after attending a March for Life rally. He was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. A Native American activist, Nathan Phillips, was singing and playing a drum when he found himself face-to-face with Sandmann, whose “frozen” smile struck some as nervousness and others as arrogance. Video snippets of the encounter went viral.
The Washington Post published a series of print and online articles based on one of those snippets, criticizing Sandmann for seeming to stare down the Native American elder and characterizing him as an instigator. A longer version of the video painted a more complex situation that involved a group of African Americans, who referred to themselves as the “Hebrew Israelites.” Sandmann stated that the group called the high-school students “racists,” “bigots” and worse. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Sandmann claimed that he stood still and smiled at the elder.
Sandmann and his family brought a suit against the Post, seeking $250 million. The lawsuit accused the Post of targeting Sandmann “because he was the white Catholic student” wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat. Further, it accused the Post of engaging in a modern form of “McCarthyism” by targeting Sandmannn and publishing libelous articles about him both in print and online. In particular, it accused the Post of using its:
“… vast financial resources to enter the bully pulpit by publishing a series of false and defamatory print and online articles which effectively provided a worldwide megaphone to smear a young boy who was in its view an acceptable casualty in their war against the President.”
The Post has denied any culpability and said it will mount a vigorous defense.
Regardless of the merits of the suit, its institution demonstrates that the internet is not a safe haven for offensive speech, particularly when it defames and harms the reputation of a business or an individual. Individuals often try to escape exposure for defamation and libel by shielding themselves with a cloak of anonymity the Internet seems to provide. But, by following required procedures, the targets of such speech can find out the identity of the speakers and take appropriate steps.
Recently, a local news outlet published defamatory statements about one of our clients and posted it on its website falsely claiming he had engaged in criminal conduct in a Scottsdale mall. Generally, once an item is posted on the Internet, it stays there forever. Our client was a local realtor whose reputation had been tarnished and was rapidly losing clients as a result of the false article. We were successful in having the information taken down from the outlet’s website and minimizing further harm to our client’s reputation.
Always think before you post anything on-line. And, if your reputation is smeared in an Internet post or tweet, seek legal advice to determine if recourse for the smear is available. It’s one way we try to contribute to our client’s peace of mind.
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