Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Defamation on Facebook: Why a New York Court Dismissed a Recent Suit

Defamation on Facebook: Why a New York Court Dismissed a Recent Suit, Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On July 22, a New York state-court judge dismissed a defamation case based on comments that were posted by a group of teenagers to their private Facebook group. (The Citizen Media Law Project has collected together the documents relating to the case.)

...The group's prior, jokey practice and the way it labeled itself are both relevant here, because past comments can influence the way in which group members interpret later comments, and thus can affect whether later comments are taken seriously. And a comment that is not taken seriously by anyone who reads it cannot inflict reputational damage, and thus cannot support a defamation claim.

To put the point another way, defamation precedent insists that statements be read in context, and here, the group's practice of posting comments that were meant to be jokes seems to have been part of the context in which everything that was posted was read.

Thus, invoking the First-Amendment-driven defamation exceptions for "rhetorical hyperbole" and "vigorous epithets," the court dismissed the case -- essentially on the ground that no one in the group could have believed that the statements at issue were true statements of fact...

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