Hiding Behind the Keyboard
In a world lacking in privacy, it always amazes me to open my Facebook application and read the snarky, awful comments people post while they believe they are safely behind a keyboard. Somehow these folks are unaware of the laws that protect us from defamatory comments. There is no such thing as free speech between private individuals, as our constitution only applies to government speech and only protects us from being sued by the government for our public remarks. In other words, if statements are made about another person, common law and causes of action are fair game.
We have a confused understanding of this because the United States Supreme Court has extended significant protection to media organizations under New York Times v. Sullivan, which held that newspapers can only be liable for civil damages when they print stories about public figures if they knowingly print falsehoods with the intention of harming someone. But lawsuits between private individuals are not subject to that standard. Under Georgia law, which is codified in Chapter 5 of Title 51 of the Georgia Code, you can be sued if you cause someone harm by spreading false rumors about someone, and they do not even have to prove they were materially harmed if the rumor alleges that they committed a crime, or had a disease, or did something unethical in their profession. The law assumes such rumors are harmful.
When people post articles portraying others in what is termed a “false light,” they may be in an appropriate case be sued for these statements. This is a highly technical area of law, and obviously sometimes you are permitted to say things even if they harm others. However, it is safest to assume that false statements posted online will not be entitled to any deference under the law. Under the eyes of the law, one should be careful about what one writes about another. In some circumstances, claims can be made against those who post, and their homeowner’s insurance policy may have to pay for those statements. As usual, it is better to listen to your grandmother’s advice, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”
Steven Leibel is the principal Attorney at Leibel Law, he is a Georgia Super Lawyer in personal injury, and is rated preeminent AV by Martindale.com. If you have any questions, please feel free to email at email@example.com or call (404) 892-0700