The legalities of online defamation
By Isabel Suarez
Concurring: Tim Carlin
I have lost count of the number of weeks that I have stayed up with my 14-year-old daughter who has been crying herself to sleep because of lies posted on Facebook by her ex-boyfriend. She assures me that they were never sexually active. I can only describe their relationship as puppy love. After breaking up with him, he began to post malicious comments about the nature of their relationship, and, of course, other kids have joined in on the “fun” at my daughter’s expense. My husband and I have spoken to the boy’s parents who claim they have no power over him. We have also contacted the school, but all we get is the runaround. Is there anything we can legally do, short of moving out of town?
I am so sorry for your daughter’s and family’s pain. Children and adults alike are being hurt by the ever-increasing use of cyberspace. According to Facebook’s own statistics, 15 percent of online teens have had private material forwarded without permission, while 13 percent have received threatening messages and 6 percent have had embarrassing photos posted.
It seems that we only become aware of egregiousness, when it results in death. Such as the case of the Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, or Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from Missouri, who both committed suicide after Internet postings. I believe the number of people hurt, to various degrees, is unquantifiable.
As a result of Megan Meier’s suicide, her hometown passed a law in an effort to combat cyber bullying, prompting many states to follow suit. As a result, the 111th Congress introduced HR 1966; the Megan Meier Cyber Prevention Act, in 2009. Despite desperate attempts by many legislators, the bill died in committee. This bill did not fail for lack of caring; but rather, its countless issues. These include the balancing act between free speech and what constitutes commentary as opposed to bullying; sprinkle in libel laws and the questionable relationship between the bill’s sponsor with one of her major donors – a private cyber crime prevention company, and you have a “kill bill.”
Ironically, Facebook, the most commanding of the Internet social network sites, owns its success to the dissemination of hurtful commentary. There is probably not a single person who has either, directly, or knows someone, who has been negatively affected by this “better and more effective communication.”
Although significant efforts have been made to pass laws, the majority of perpetrators are leaving behind destroyed or severely damaged reputations. Some recover, but many are forever damaged or defamed.
In Ohio, the proposed Ohio Senate Bill 127, named in memory of Jessica Logan, a teenager who committed suicide in 2008 after being subject to online bullying, has provisions that require schools to include cyber bullying in their anti-harassment policies. It also requires the training of teachers and staff, to handle this new age issue – easier said than done. In addition, the bill would require districts to establish systems for accepting anonymous reports of cyber bullying and take steps to protect the victims. We must rally our legislature to create laws, which not only protect our children, but our adults as well. Short of pursuing remedies under libel laws, or injunctions, we have little, if any, remedies.
At the end of the day, while spreading vicious lies or malicious rumors is nothing new, my best advice is for parents to be hyper-vigilant of their children’s activities, both as perpetrators and/or victims. And by all means, follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and I do not mean retaliate. Do not allow anymore sleepless nights, and take your daughter to a well-trained mental health professional who can teach her tools to deal with emotional cruelty. I can only pray that we develop the wisdom and tolerance to stop hurting each other, faster than technology dehumanizes us.
Legal disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and informative purposes only, and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk and are advised to seek an attorney if legal consultation is needed. The accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed as laws are subject to change. Neither the author, the Dayton City Paper, nor any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.
Isabel Suarez is a Cuban-born American who has been practicing law since 1984. Her diverse multicultural and multilingual practice Suarez & Carlin in Old North Dayton especially serves the regions working poor. Isabel is also a board member of and volunteer for the Ohio Intervention Program. You can reach Isabel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling her office located at 765 Troy St. in Dayton at (937) 258-1800.