Possible Liability for Social Media Posts, Tweets, and Comments
The internet has made it easier than ever to speak to large numbers of people quickly. While the rise of social media and comments sections on webpages have certainly been a positive development, the law has been slow to catch up with the information age. Here are some Georgia laws that could make you think twice before you click “submit”.
Time or Fine?
The law distinguishes between criminal and civil liability. Criminal activities may be prosecuted and can result in being put in jail, prison, fine, or other criminal penalty. Civil liability comes from activities that may or may not have been criminal, but where people only want to get money out of a lawsuit (i.e. there is no jail time). While any affected person could sue for money (civil liability), only the State can file criminal charges for an alleged crime.
Let’s be Civil
Georgia has long recognized civil liability for certain written or spoken actions against another. While individuals have freedom of speech, they also have a right to bring action for any harm brought by what another person says or writes about them. Here are some of the more common Georgia laws that may affect your online life.
Libel and slander are easily confused. Slander comes from false speech. Libel, however, is “a false and malicious defamation of another” that is not spoken and that tends to expose that person to “public hatred, contempt, or ridicule”. The expression must be “published”, but under Georgia law “publication” results when the item is communicated to any person other than the person libeled. Because most social media platforms allow all your friends or followers to see what you post, great care should be taken to make sure it is not libelous. However, “the truth will set you free” if what you publish is verifiably true (i.e. not just an opinion).
2. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
People can be cruel on social media, and if they cross the line they may be subject to a lawsuit. Georgia recognizes civil liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but it is hard to prove. The action must be so nasty that “the distress is so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Simply hurting someone’s feelings is not enough, it must be “outrageous.” Bottom line, even if you won’t get sued, don’t be a jerk online.
Your House to the Big House
Certain criminal charges could possibly result from online activity. Before you submit or tweet something, stop to think whether doing so may break the law or implicate you in another person’s crime.
1. Criminal Defamation
Basically libel’s big brother, criminal defamation is a misdemeanor (generally punishable by no more than 12 months in jail) that results when someone is found guilty of communicating (including writing) something false about a person. Like libel, the lie must expose the person to “hatred, contempt, or ridicule”, but must also tend to provoke a breach of the peace. Makes you wonder about Westboro Baptist Church . . .
2. Terroristic Threat
Even if you are joking, posting a terroristic threat is no laughing matter. A terroristic threat results from threatening “to commit any crime of violence, to release any hazardous substance . . . or to burn or damage property with the purpose of terrorizing another or of causing the evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation or otherwise causing serious public inconvenience or in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience.” The threat must be “corroborated” (basically they must prove you made the threat), but as the internet never forgets save yourself the trouble and don’t post at all.
Conspiracy is crime in its own right, and it is also a way to get other “co-conspirators” on the hook for the illegal acts of a co-conspirator. Georgia law provides “a person commits the offense of conspiracy to commit a crime when he together with one or more persons conspires to commit any crime and any one or more of such persons does any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy.” You do not even have to be found guilty of the alleged crime giving rise to the conspiracy to be found guilty of criminal conspiracy.
4. Party to a Crime
While arguably a stretch, simply “liking” someone’s Facebook post may enough to get you into legal hot water. Georgia law says someone can be charged with a crime if they “intentionally advise, encourage, hire, or counsel” another person to commit a crime. Pictures of underage drinking and / or “water pipes”, status updates and posts, and other evidence illegal activity are readily apparent on some people’s Facebook and Twitter profiles. Even if it is not a crime to do so, encouraging others to continue breaking the law is just not a good idea, period.
Beyond civil and criminal liability, there are numerous practical considerations to posting online as well. As social media continues to expand, more and more stories make the news each of day of people losing their jobs because of posts they made to their employer’s social media or their own social media from work. Once you post from your employer’s computer, chances are that data belongs to your employer (i.e. it’s pretty easy to trace). People in certain positions now risk losing their jobs even more over incriminating posts regardless of when and where they were made. So don’t be a dope. Think before your post. Once you put things in writing, it’s pretty hard in this digital age to get them back.
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Thank you for reading this article. The information contained in this article is for discussion purposes only. The information contained in this article is not legal advice upon which you should act and simply reading this article does not make you a client of Norris Legal, L.L.C. or any other law firm. Thank you again.
 This information is meant for illustrative and informational purposes only. Nothing in this article is meant to create or imply civil or criminal liability for any internet or social media related activity conducted by a user.