Facebook “Facts”

A Long Island judge has dismissed a $6 million defamation action filed by a teenager against four former classmates who set up a Facebook page on which they joked that the teen used heroin and contracted AIDS by having sex with animals in Africa.

The judge ruled that no reasonable person could believe that the allegedly defamatory statements were facts.

“A reasonable reader, given the overall context of the posts, simply would not believe that the Plaintiff contracted AIDS by having sex with a horse or a baboon or that she contracted AIDS from a male prostitute who also gave her crabs and syphilis, or that having contracted sexually transmitted diseases in such manner she morphed into the devil.”

“Taken together, the statements can only be read as puerile attempts by adolescents to outdo each other.”

The judge also dismissed a negligent-supervision claim against the teenagers’ parents, saying that a computer does not constitute, as required by New York case law, a “dangerous instrument.” “To declare a computer a dangerous instrument in the hands of teenagers in an age of ubiquitous computer ownership would create an exception that would engulf the rule against parental liability,” the judge concluded.

The plaintiff in Finkel v. Dauber sought $3 million for the damage to her reputation and character and another $3 million in punitive damages.

In June 2009, a Manhattan judge granted Facebook’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which provides immunity to service providers for “information originating with a third-party user.”

In dismissing the case, the judge found that “while the posts display an utter lack of taste and propriety, they do not constitute statements of fact. The entire context and tone of the posts constitute evidence of adolescent insecurities and indulgences, and a vulgar attempt at humor. What they do not contain are statements of fact.”

This case illustrates the continuing difficulty in applying even long-established legal principles to cyberspace where hyperbole and conjecture are contagious. According to this court, the more sensational the statement, the more protection the poster will enjoy. In a world where almost anything is possible, and most of it is posted online, individuals seemingly enjoy less and less protection from even the most outrageous and sensationalistic statements.

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