Friday, October 22, 2010

Free Speech on the Internet? Part 1 - Libel

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, have no legal background, and do not wish to ever have any legal training.

I am prepping some materials for an Internet course I am teaching in the Spring and began to look over all of my information on free speech on the Internet and the issues of libel and slander and how they pertain to online activity.  Instead of making it a handout, I thought I would just make it a blog post and point them to it (and maybe save a tree or three in the process).  Feel free, even if you are not in the course, to comment, etc.

Libel in a nutshell is defamation by written word or pictures.  The first question I am always asked when we talk about this, does libel pertain to Facebook and Twitter?  You bet.  Theoretically, if you tweet something defamatory about someone or post something defamatory about someone on Facebook, you do leave yourself open to being sued.  The same would go if you blog something libelous or add a comment to a message board or to a blog post that is libelous.  Now, of course, suing someone for libel would require the means (money, lawyer, etc.) to do so and the actual proof of defamation.

Let's take a quick look at the case of Courtney Love and her tweet that got her in loads of trouble.  Apparently she had a falling out with a designer and tweeted some less than kind words about her including hints of cocaine abuse.  The designer retaliated by taking her to court showing that even 140 characters is enough to get sued.

Trolls should beware (or use TOR) when deciding who to spout their libelous rants towards, they may just pick the wrong person with the means to go after the libelous troll.

The biggest problem that I can see when considering the libel laws with regards to the Internet are the protections (or lack thereof) for the blogger/Tweeter/Facebook user.  Journalists are trained about the pitfalls of libel and are granted protections both by the law and their employer (usually).  The run-of-the mill blogger, most of the time, will not have the same training or the same protections.

On top of that, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) does grant protections for the ISPs and the companies that are housing the libelous claims.  So, for example, this blog is hosted by  When I signed up for this blog, it took me a matter of minutes to get signed in.  I can now rant and rave about anything that I want - libelous or not. (Google) is free and clear of my ranting and raving because of this act.  This act also protects the blogger from any libelous comments that may be left in the comments section.

The biggest problem is that the law is behind the times and is trying to catch up with technology.  There is no Moore's Law for our legal system.  

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