- Have you ever published a negative statement about an identifiable person in a print, audio, broadcast or web format? (Ex. Facebook posts or status updates, tweets, blog posts, etc.)
- Do you know what the consequences are for saying false, damaging statements about an identifiable person?
- Conversely, do you know what legal defenses exist for you if you have said a negative statement about another individual?
Consider these questions as you review the example below.
Don’t forget to try the quiz from the left menu, “What Have You Learned?”, after you’ve spent some time with this section.
Libel is defined as any published, false statement that is damaging to an identifiable person’s reputation. The topic of libel within social networking, particularly on Facebook and now Twitter, has recently become a buzzworthy topic as precedent for such matters is now being set under current law.
In a recent case, well-known Irish businessman, Declan Ganley (@declanganley), and his media lawyer, Paul Tweed (@Paul_Tweed), set a precedent for legal proceedings regarding defamation and libel on social sites, including Twitter and Facebook. Ganley and Tweed reached a settlement with blogger Kevin Barrington (@kevbarring) over defamatory tweets he published in December 2012, proving that social media outlets are no different from print media or any other mediums when it comes to defamation and libel laws.
According to Paula Mullooly of Simon McAleese Solicitors, “Twitter is no different to anybody else defaming another person. It is no different to writing a letter, saying something on television, on radio. [...] All defamation requires is that you publish to one other person — any kind of communication.”
For his defamatory comments, Barrington was forced to make a public apology to Ganley, as well as make a “substantial” donation to the Poor Clare’s, a charity of Ganley’s choice.
You are liable for everything that you post online — from tweets and mentions, to personal blog posts and updates, you are accountable for what you publish. The same defamation laws that apply to print media, such as newspapers and magazines, also apply to all social media sites and other mediums.
However, it is permissible to say negative things provided they fall into one of the following three defenses:
- Defense of truth: If a negative statement is found to be true then it is not libel.
- Public interest: If an intrusion of privacy or libel is found, but the published material is found to be in the public interest, then it may be considered not libelous.
- Fair comment: Rooted in the idea that a well functioning democracy is one that allows for the holding of sincere opinions in opposition, the courts allow libelous material to be published if the defendant can prove that a ‘reasonable’ person could hold the same view and that the belief is sincerely held.
Note: If malice or personal grudge is found to be a motivating factor in publishing a negative statement, you have no defense. Additionally, comments made about public figures are more easily protected under these defenses than are those against private citizens.