I present now a fascinating case that serves to illustrate a couple of points about Internet defamation. We’ll call this one the Girl in the Red Bikini.
Enter the Fayette County School District in Georgia. School District administrators decided it would be a good idea to warn their high school students about the dangers of posting photographs on social sites such as Facebook. They came up with a presentation with the theme, “once it’s there, its there to stay.” A perfectly valid message to teach the high schoolers.
But then they did something strange. They decided that to really drive home the point, the presentation needed embarrassing photos posted by current students. They snooped around on their students’ Facebook pages to find what they considered illustrative examples of the poor choices being made by their students.
One photo they decided was a good illustration was a photo of student Chelsea Chaney. Ms. Chaney had dared to post a picture of her standing beside a cardboard cut-out of the artist formerly know as Snoop Dogg (he now goes by Snoop Lion in case you missed the memo). Snoop (or, rather, his cardboard cut-out) is holding a can of something. I really can’t identify it from the photo. It could be a beer but it could just as easily be an energy drink. Worse, though, in the minds of the Fayette County School District, Ms, Chaney was wearing a bikini. Put those facts together, and you have what is obviously a very embarrassing photo that never should have been posted, apparently because it shows public drunkeness and promiscuity, at least in the warped minds of the District.
In reality, the photo was entirely innocent and implied nothing. (Obviously Ms. Chaney was not happy that the photo was posted so I won’t republish it, but it is already published here.) But imagine the shock of Chaney, seeing her photo come up on the screen at a school assembly, used as an example of poor choices. She didn’t think that was very cool, and is now suing the school district.
So what are the takeaways from this case (aside from not going to school in Fayette County)? The school district was idiotic to create this presentation, but it does serve to illustrate that the photos you post can have very unforeseen consequences, even if they aren’t inappropriate. Also, this is yet another example of the Barbara Streisand Effect. Chaney was justifiably embarrassed and angry that the photo was posted, but whereas before only her schoolmates saw it, now she has made it a topic of discussion all over the Internet. That may be a price she is willing to pay in order to combat this behavior, but just be aware that any action can fan the very flames you were hoping to extinguish.
Clients sometimes ask me to seek a letter of apology as part of a defamation settlement. I have managed to do so on a number of occasions, but I usually recommend a letter of retraction as opposed to a letter of apology, because the latter is often a deal breaker.
In our society, a true apology is a big deal (as opposed to an “I apologize if you were offended” type of apology). Many defendants would rather pay money than to apologize, which is somehow viewed as weak. After all, a real apology seeks forgiveness from the other side, so it sticks in the craw of most defamers that they are basically asking the victim to pass judgment on them.
With this mind set in mind, one can fully appreciate the frustration of Mark Byron. He and his wife were divorcing and fighting over the custody of their son. When the judge issued an order limiting his custody, he went to his Facebook page to vent, posting:
“… if you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband’s life and take your son’s father away from him completely — all you need to do is say that you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner… , “
But there was a problem. The judge had also ordered Byron not to do “anything to cause his wife to suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance, or bodily injury.” His wife was blocked from his Facebook page, but she got wind of the posting anyway and her attorney charged into court seeking a contempt order, asserting that the posting violated the protective order.
The judge agreed that it violated the order, and gave Byron a choice. The normal result for violation of a court order is a fine and/or some time in jail. The judge told Byron he could go to jail for 60 days for the violation of the order OR he could post an apology on Facebook. Byron decided he’d eat a little crow and post the apology rather than to sit in jail for two months. Here is what he posted:
I would like to apologize to my wife, Elizabeth Byron, for the comments regarding her and our son … which were posted on my Facebook wall on or about November 23, 2011. I hereby acknowledge that two judicial officials in the Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court have heard evidence and determined that I committed an act of domestic violence against Elizabeth on January 17, 2011. While that determination is currently being appealed, it has not been overturned by the appellate court. As a result of that determination, I was granted supervised parenting time with (my son) on a twice weekly basis. The reason I saw (my son) only one time during the four month period which ended about the time of my Facebook posting was because I chose to see him on only that single occasion during that period. I hereby apologize to Elizabeth for casting her in an unfavorable light by suggesting that she withheld (my son) from me or that she in any manner prevented me from seeing (my son) during that period. That decision was mine and mine alone. I further apologize to all my Facebook Friends for attempting to mislead them into thinking that Elizabeth was in any manner preventing me from spending time with (my son), which caused several of my Facebook Friends to respond with angry, venomous, and inflammatory comments of their own.
This case is being reported as a judge who trammeled on the free speech rights of a party, but I really don’t see it that way. Would it have been better for the judge to jail Byron with no offer of an alternative? There was another case where a judge told a shoplifter he could go to jail or stand in front of the store wearing an apology sign for a day. People also got up in arms about that verdict, but I think so long as it is offered as an alternative to normal jail time. For the record, to judges everywhere, if you are about to send me to jail, please offer me some crazy punishment as an alternative. On the other hand, if the judge had simply ordered the apology, I would have a problem with that result.
Where I think the judge got it wrong was his determination that Byron had violated the order. The judge had ordered him not to do anything to cause his wife “to suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance, or bodily injury.” His Facebook posting was an absolutely true statement, and it only became “about” his wife if the reader was familiar enough with the circumstances to connect the dots. The comments were not even addressed to his wife, since she was blocked. To order someone not to say anything that might “annoy” someone else, and then hold them in contempt for doing so, is not appropriate in this country.