With all the bickering, trolling, doxxing, etc. going on within social media these days, we thought it would be interesting to discuss law with social media. Specifically, answer the question: “Can I be sued for something I post on social media?”
The answer is yes, but we wanted an explanation from someone who understands law. So, we commissioned the help of Joseph Scott of Joseph Scott Law. He’s an attorney out of Springfield, Missouri.
We have presented this in a Q&A format with the hopes it makes it more easily understood. So, without further ado, here is the conversation we had about lawsuits and social media.
Derek Dueker: From what I’ve found there’s four ways in which someone could be sued from their use of social media:
- Defamation of Character/Libel
- Harassment including cyber bullying
- Invasion of privacy
- And copyright infringement
Is that the complete list? And what does one need to post to become at risk for a lawsuit in these cases?
Joseph: There are a number of different ways a person can be held legally liable for what they post on social media.
There’s the criminal side of things, which could lead to fines and/or jail time, and then there’s the civil side of things, which usually leads to money damages or simply halting the behavior which caused the issue in the first place. I wouldn’t say There’s a definitive list of things that people can be held liable for, but the list you have is a pretty good place to start.
Think of it this way: if you can be held liable for the actions in person and the effects of the online actions are the same as if they were done in person, you can be held liable.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Let’s say you and I know each other, we each knows where the other lives and works, and we frequent the same establishments. One day, you say “I don’t like potatoes.” However, I love potatoes. I love them so much that I say to you “I’m going to punch you in the face” because you don’t like potatoes.
In a civil case, this would constitute assault, which is a threat or attempt to injure another individual which creates a fear of imminent danger.
Now, in person, this would clearly be assault. I threatened to punch you, and I had the ability to do it.
However, what if we were talking on Facebook messenger or something? Could I still be held liable?
You’d have to prove to the jury that, even though we were talking online, you were placed in fear of imminent danger and that the circumstances were such that it looked like I could do it.
Since we go to the same places, there’s a chance that I might be sending that message as I’m walking into the same restaurant that you’re at which would make it more likely that there was an assault because I could very easily follow through with my threat.
Now, what if I was in Hawaii on vacation? That would make it less likely that there was an assault because I would be too far away to punch you in the face at that time. Does that make sense?
In Missouri, where I live, we have a criminal charge “Assault in the Fourth Degree,” which is Missouri Statute 565.056.
One of the ways I could be charged with Assault in the Fourth Degree is if I purposefully place you in fear of immediate physical injury.
Sounds very similar to the civil case above, right? Well, that’s where the “burden of proof” comes in.
You’ve heard that in criminal cases, prosecutors have to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In civil cases, you only have to show that it is more likely than not that there was an assault. If we are thinking of it in numbers, in a civil case, you only have to make the jury think that there’s a 51% likelihood that I committed the assault.
Criminal cases are much harder to prove.
So, can the prosecutor prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my Facebook message placed you in fear of immediate physical injury? Maybe if I were going to the same restaurant as you.
But if I were in Hawaii? It would be almost impossible for the prosecutor to prove that a criminal assault happened.
So, you can see how there are a LOT of different factors that go into whether or not you can be held liable for your actions online.
Good rule of thumb though, is if it doesn’t require a physical action and can be done with words or other mediums which you can share online, you can probably be held liable for it under the right circumstances.
DD: How likely is it one would actually be sued? Only in case of refusing to take it down or is there a point where the damage done would take you straight into a lawsuit?
JS: It really depends on how serious the actions are and how litigious the victim is.
You don’t have to do anything wrong for someone to sue you.
There are thousands of cases filed every year in which no wrongdoing occurred and the person suing has no reason to be doing so.
If I posted online that you loved potatoes, even though you don’t like them at all, you aren’t likely to sue me.
But what if I gave your phone number to every potato farmer in Idaho and told them to mail you their best potatoes because you love potatoes so much? You’d be more likely to sue me in that situation.
DD: How much is normally awarded? How is that amount determined?
JS: I won’t really comment on that. There’s so much variability in jury verdicts.
I’m assuming you’re talking about civil cases. Unless there is a statute saying, “Case types X, Y, and Z can only be awarded up to this amount of money,” there really isn’t a perceivable ceiling to the amount of money one could be awarded.
At the same time, however, you could sue me, prove that I harassed you by having farmers mail you potatoes even though you don’t like potatoes, and be awarded zero dollars. The jury would be saying “yes, what Joseph did was wrong, but we don’t think you should get money because of his actions.”