You might remember a news event from a couple of years back involving a virtual unknown named Shirley Sherrod. An unassuming employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sherrod rose to notoriety in a matter of days when excerpts from a speech she gave were posted online (courtesy of blogger Andrew Breitbart) painting her as a racist. She was quickly forced to resign her post as media pundits (including highly respected national news organizations) publicly skewered her, along with the government agency that hired her.
Of course, the story got even more appalling when it was revealed that her speech had, in fact, been edited to appear racist; when viewed in context it was clearly just the opposite. While the government apologized profusely for their actions (the president himself phoned her) and offered Sherrod a new position (which she ultimately turned down), Breitbart refused to apologize for his role in the whole affair, prompting Sherrod to launch a lawsuit against him claiming defamation. And if not for his recent passing (in March of this year), he would still be facing these pending criminal charges.
The lesson to be learned from this story is that the blogosphere should not be viewed as a playground for those who wish to post inaccurate or inflammatory “information”. It’s surprising how many people harbor the misconception that they can get away with behavior online that is against the law in the real world just because they operate under the guise of anonymity or the blanket protection of the First Amendment. The truth is that defamation, in any format, is illegal, as are threats. And false information that leads to harm is also punishable under the law, whether it occurs out in the real world or the online arena. For bloggers that fail to realize this, there could be very serious consequences.
Sherrod’s case is just one of many in which bloggers assume that they can get away with spreading misinformation simply because they are operating in a virtual forum. But more and more people are growing tired of the defamation that occurs online, and they’re starting to fight back with lawsuits in the real world. Take for example the case of Dana Thornton, a New Jersey woman charged with identity theft for posing as her ex-boyfriend, creating a Facebook page in his name, and filling it with libelous postings (saying that he did drugs, hired escorts, and so on). She faces 18 months in prison if convicted of identity theft. Although she didn’t exactly blog about her ex, she definitely engaged in illegal defamation, signaling an ongoing issue whereby people think that this type of activity is allowable simply because it occurs online.
Unfortunately, some people are learning the hard way that bad behavior in the online arena is no more admissible than in the real world. And a website link for publicliabilityinsurance.org won’t save you from yourself should you choose to post false statements on your blog. What people need to realize is that they are accountable for what they post online, and there’s a fine line between voicing an opinion and stating something as a fact. When this line is crossed, the injured party has every right to file suit against the offender, no matter how innocent their intentions. So for the bloggers who think they can hide behind their freedoms of speech, it pays to know that those freedoms are limited. And if you can’t verify something as fact, simply don’t post it.