A generation ago, members of the press were pretty much the only people who had to worry about issues like defamation and libel. But today virtually anyone can have a platform and a mass audience with whom to share ideas. And that means virtually anyone can find themselves, unwittingly or otherwise, liable for defamation. It also means that topics reserved for mass communications and law students are now relevant for the public at large.
If you tweet, snap, blog or otherwise post online, here are five steps to keep you out of defamation danger:
Know what constitutes defamation.
Just as its name suggests, defamation is when you defame another person through harmful statements about another person that you know or should know are false. Slander, when such statements are spoken, and libel, when they are written, are forms of defamation.
For example, tweeting that your boss is a sexual harassment nightmare when no such claims have been verified would be considered libelous. But tweeting that you just won a judgment against your boss for sexual harassment, if true, is safe.
Stick to facts; avoid opinions that could be construed as facts.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it’s critical to distinguish the difference between opinion and fact. If you believe a politician lied about his or her campaign finances, for example, but it’s not been proven, it’s best to precede any verbal or written statements about that belief with the words “in my opinion.” It’s better yet to keep potentially defamatory thoughts to yourself.
Even if you think the latest celebrity mistress is a home wrecker, name-calling can constitute character assassination. He or she may believe their paramour truly was separated at the time of the affair, in which case the home was already wrecked and your statement is false.
Let readers reach their own conclusions.
It’s likely that when faced with the facts, the same facts you encountered, many of your Facebook followers will view situations much the same way you do — without you exposing yourself to defamation claims.
Don't retweet or link to someone else's potential defamatory material.
Someone else may originate a rumor, but that doesn’t stop it from being untrue. Regardless of where a defamatory statement originated, anyone who repeats it is just as liable as the initial source.
Err on the side of caution
If you're on the fence about whether posting something is a good idea, don’t post it. That's the easiest way to prevent any possible problems.
By Ellen Atterbury, Litigation Attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For more information about defamation and libel, call us at 608-784-5678.