When words matter: Or ‘Be careful on Facebook!’

'While Facebook and other social media sites give you a forum to post your views to the world at large, your ability to use that forum comes with the responsibility to make sure that you do not defame someone else. It also means that you are responsible for making sure others don’t post defamatory comments on your pages.'

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Image by Yoel Ben-Avraham, Creative Commons License.

By David Hughes, Forward Law LLP

A recent decision in the B.C. Supreme Court should be a wake-up call that laws, specifically defamation laws, apply to what a person posts on Facebook.

What is defamation? Defamation has been defined as “to diminish the esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence” in which a person is held. In other words, it is about bad-mouthing someone else. It can be verbal (known as “slander”) or written (known as “libel”). Generally, libel is considered to be more significant because a permanent record of it exists, whereas spoken words do not live on in the same way. This is why what people post about other people on Facebook matters. Words matter.

In the recent case of Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686, the Defendant, Ms. Van Nes, made a number of negative statements on Facebook about her neighbor, Mr. Pritchard.  She described this as “venting”. A number of her friends jumped on her initial post, and added further negative comments about Mr. Pritchard.

Even though this post and all the associated comments was removed within 27 hours, Ms. Van Nes was still found liable and had to pay Mr. Pritchard $65,000 in damages. Of note, Ms. Van Nes was found liable not only for her own defamatory comments, but also for the comments made by her friends. The court set out the following test for liability for another person’s comments:

1) actual knowledge of the defamatory material posted by the third party,

2) a deliberate act that can include inaction in the face of actual knowledge, and

3) power and control over the defamatory content.

So, if you are aware of the third party’s comments, have the ability to delete them, but do nothing, you may be held liable for them.

Fifteen years ago there was no social media as we know it today, and so it was probably harder to defame someone. But now that almost everyone communicates in writing: on Facebook; on Twitter, by text; it has become that much easier. While Facebook and other social media sites give you a forum to post your views to the world at large, your ability to use that forum comes with the responsibility to make sure that you do not defame someone else. It also means that you are responsible for making sure others don’t post defamatory comments on your pages. If you are not careful, there may be significant financial consequences. Take care, and remember: words matter!

David Hughes practices defamation law at Forward Law LLP.