Malicious words common to Facebook
Despite a right of free speech, not everything uttered is protected under the First Amendment.
Likewise, postings on Facebook are only protected if they fall within constitutional speech. A libelous comment, obscene photo, copyrighted film, or other expression not normally protected under the First Amendment, does not become OK just because it is being said through an informal channel and not mainstream media.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer at The First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, has noticed many social media users are ignorant about libel law, particularly its application to the social networks.
“If you defame or libel somebody online rather than print publication, you are just as liable,” said Scheer. “Nothing is different. Medium doesn’t change anything.”
Libel, which falls under defamation law, refers to any published comment that is false and causes harm to a person’s reputation.
Any social media post that is both false and malicious toward an identified individual is breaking the law. As “cyberbullying” has become a growing problem in the last decade, it is clear far too many people feel comfortable attacking others while hiding behind a computer screen.
Libelous comments and cyberbullying are particularly troubling in social media as users wrongly assume their words are less confrontational and less damaging because not said in person. The fact that these words are sometimes broadcast to thousands or more, makes it even more troubling.
For a lot of Facebook users, an ignorance of the law could spell trouble unintentionally.
Torrey Fox, a senior photography major at Dominican University, admits she never really thought about the potential harm – and likely lawsuits – that could come from Facebook posts.
“I never thought twice about what my friends and I post on Facebook,” she added.
The issue of Facebook content has been particularly relevant in public schools as students often post derogatory comments about peers, teachers and administrators. The line between free speech and libel is often thin.
Most attention regarding hateful messages on Facebook has come from secondary schools and colleges. The big question is whether students have the right to vent and say what they want to say without facing repercussions from their school?
A high school student in Baton Rouge, La., posted this message on his Facebook page last fall about a teacher:
“[Teacher], no one likes you. Your [sic] more two faced than the average seventh grader. You cant [sic] teach worth a shit. You relate EVERYTHING to the Holocaust and WWII. Sure it was some bad stuff. But your [sic] an American Lit teacher. Not a history teacher. Maybe if you straightened up that back of yours and got your head out of your ass, you would realize that your [sic] a piece of shit and can burn in hell for all that you have done against the senior class. Not yours truly, The senior class of 2012 (Schraum, 2012).”
In response to this post, the student was suspended and kicked out of the honor society. Since this action did not take place during school or on school grounds, the student chose to fight for his rights with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Before the case reached a judge, the two parties chose to settle out of the court and the student had his record expunged but was not allowed back in to the Honor Society.
Mark Lewis, senior business major and former student president at Dominican, believes that although the Louisiana student went about his complaint in an unprofessional and immature way, the message may have been valid, which is why is should be protected speech.
“The freedom of speech protects him,” Lewis said, noting, “However, I agree that he should have been kicked out of the honor society for what was written”.
In Sacramento, a high school sophomore posted that his biology teacher was a “fat ass who should stop eating fast food, and is a douchebag.” The student, Donny Tobolski, also faced a suspension from school and was aided by the American Civil Liberties Union to help him argue his case.
In the end, the court said the speech did not meet the requirement of causing a disruption to the school environment, the San Juan Unified School District had to clear Tobolski’s record of suspension.
Natalia Forrer, a Dominican graduate student of the family and marriage therapy program, believes that since there was no serious disruption at school, administrators should have done something more fitting than just suspending the student who was exercising his free speech.
“The boy should be mandated to take a class on bullying or disrespectful behavior about how the consequences of harmful words can have a true detrimental effect on the psyche of an individual,” she said.
The issue of censorship to prevent libel and cyberbullying becomes especially difficult.
Sarah Zykanov, adjunct professor of education and counseling psychology at Dominican, says she definitely discusses the issue of cybersafety and cyberbullying with the teaching credential candidates in her required course, Using Technology in Classrooms.
“Some students take this on as a mini research project, presenting their findings and thoughts to the group in an online discussion forum,” Zykanov says. “We also have class discussions of netiquette and appropriate online communications with our students.”
Dominican University, Communications & Media Studies