FOX 5 Investigates: Online Defamation - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

FOX 5 Investigates: Online Defamation


Hurtful messages, even outright lies splashed up on the web for all to see. When online thugs are bent on defaming you, it seems like you can't do anything to stop them.

It turns out you can't say whatever you want on Facebook or any other social networking site. Even though dozens of sites give us all a little power over someone else's online reputation, it doesn't mean it is entirely legal.

Is it bad behavior? Yes. Is it illegal? Sometimes.

Can you say whatever you want online?

“That is definitely not the case and yet a lot of people believe they can,” said David Ardia, an attorney who directs the Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center.

He says just because you're online doesn't mean the laws don't apply.

“People tend to shoot from the hip a little more,” said Ardia. “They tend to say things they perhaps wouldn't say in another context because they're doing it online.”

He says what you write online is protected under free speech of the 1st Amendment, as long as what you say is true. If it's not, it could cross the line into libel and slander.

“Someone makes a factual statement. It turns out that statement is not true and it harms another person's reputation,” said Ardia.

For instance in April, the New York Post reported police arrested Paul Franco. His ex-girlfriend accused him of hijacking her Facebook page, changing her sexual preference to "gay," and then demanding cash to get her profile back.

In the United Kingdom, a court fined a 29-year-old man after he sent offensive messages to his ex girlfriend on Facebook.

In Arkansas, a 16-year-old boy is suing his own mother for slander. He claims she hacked into his account and changed his password. She says he posted some questionable things on his page and she was just protecting him.

“Although we hear a lot about these cases being filed, very few of these cases win in the end,” said Ardia.

These days, you can post a comment about pretty much anything, anywhere on the Internet. And think you can probably remain anonymous. But that's not always the case.

A judge in Cleveland may have found out the hard way. She is accused of anonymously posting comments to stories on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's website. Reporters traced them and discovered her comments were related to cases she was presiding over. The paper wrote a story about her. Now she is suing for $50 million. It is unclear how any of these cases will turn out, but they do serve as a warning.

“Be careful of what you say, even when you think you're anonymous and you're going to get away with it, it's rare that you can,” said Ardia.

Next time you get behind that keyboard, give that comment a second read. If you can't say it to someone's face, definitely don't say it online.

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