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Defamation suits versus social media users a foolhardy proposition

September 30, 2013

20130930-224850.jpg Plaintiffs losing defamation law suits tend to look a lot worse coming out of the suit than they did going in.

The irony, of course, is that the plaintiff sued to defend their reputation – or at minimum to crush those they didn’t like talking about them.

When it comes to social media it’s an even wilder ballgame. More people talking about you in ways that you don’t like, and more people thinking you look foolish if you needlessly sue someone for defamation and lose.

The latest two losers include a law school which didn’t like bloggers talking about the school’s placement statistics and an assistant principal who didn’t like students parodying him on Twitter and Facebook.

As reported by Martha Neil of the ABA Journal, Thomas Cooley Law School brought a defamation action against a law firm and bloggers who criticized the law school’s portrayal of its graduates’ employment statistics.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker dismissed the suit, in part on the basis the school was cloaked as a public figure (requiring actual malice on the defendant’s part), and fired a missive the school and it’s lawyers didn’t see coming.

Further, the statement that ‘Cooley grossly inflates its graduates’ reported mean salaries’ may not merely be protected hyperbole, but actually substantially true…

How does Cooley look now? A statement from general counsel that the school will appeal only keeps the issue alive across social media, and arguably makes Cooley look worse.

Oregon middle school assistant principal, Adam Matot, brought suit against students who set up Facebook and Twitter accounts in Matot’s name to parody and mock Matot, presumably in the way 13 or 14 year olds would mock someone.

Chris Matyszcsyk (@ChrisMatyszczyk) reports US District Judge Michael McShane, in dismissing the Computer Fraud and Decency Act and defamation claims, wasn’t impressed.

In denying Matot’s action, he reminded him that the idea of unauthorized computer behavior meant having no authorization to use a particular computer for any purpose. No, these kids weren’t exactly hackers. They may merely have been hacked off with their principal.

One sentence from the judgment is especially poetic. Referring to another case, it said: “The Court found that ‘lying on social media websites is very common.'”

No word whether there will be an appeal. But again, how does the assistant principal look now? Like a bit of an ass, I think. Hardly in better position to graduate to a principal’s job some day.

What’s the lesson for organizations who think they’ve been defamed in social media, and the lawyers who would represent them? Think twice.

Not only are you likely to draw out public discussion of the alleged defamatory comments through all sorts of social media, but if and when you lose, you’ll be held up to ridicule in the same social media you went after.

I’ve been a defendant in one defamation suit (insurance company while representing farmers on bad faith claim; dismissed and upheld on appeal) and been threatened with defamation suits by attorneys on a couple more occasions.

Certainly no fun, but I came away more convinced than ever that citizens, with limited exceptions, are free to express their views free of bullies who’d like to dictate their way.

Defamation suits have always been tough in this country. They’re apt to be even harder in the case of speech arising out of social media. Those parties, and their attorneys, bringing such claims are likely to be seen as social bullies by a very broad audience across social media, especially when they lose.

I know I’d have liked my own media channel, as everyone does today, when sued and threatened with defamation years ago.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Liz West.