Yes, Personal Facebook Posts can be Harassment

Hack de overheid by Sebastiaan ter Burg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Hack de overheid by Sebastiaan ter Burg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend recently directed me to a post on Facebook that included a question about the following:

I have a friend who is having some legal problems that started from a facebook post called “harrassment by communication” for something that was written on their own PERSONAL facebook page. 

This is my interpretation of this statement: This person’s friend is being a accused of wrongdoing because of a post Friend made on Friend’s personal Facebook page.

That can absolutely happen. If you talk about another person on your social media profile, the fact that it was made on your page and not the target’s does not shield you from the repercussions. It would be similar if you were yelling about a person while standing on your own front law vs a street corner. You’re still making a statement about a person. The fact that you have more control over your lawn than a public street corner doesn’t change whether the content of your statement is illegal.

It would a different situation if we were talking about a statement Friend made in Friend’s private diary they keep in their bedside table. In that situation, I wouldn’t expect anyone to find out what Friend wrote as long as he/she kept it private. There is no expectation of privacy in anything anyone posts on social media, regardless of your privacy settings. This is why I tell everyone to treat every post on social media as if it’s going to end up on a billboard or the front page of the newspaper.

Arizona has criminal laws against cyberharassment and harassment. They both involve communicating with a person with the intent to harass them or with the knowledge that the person was being harassed. The laws do not put limits on from where that harassment can occur. Both crimes are Class 1 misdemeanors, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

Additionally, I would expect the terms of service for every social media platform to include a provision that forbids users to the site to harass other users and doing so could result in the suspension or termination of the offender’s account.

Carter Law Firm's Postcards

Carter Law Firm’s Postcards

I have no idea if Friend referenced above did anything wrong or if he/she is merely being accused of doing something wrong. I can only say that Friend may have committed some type of harassment depending on the facts of the situation. The fact that they made the post in question from their personal page does nothing to protect them from the legal implications of their statements. The First Amendment does not shield you from the criminal consequences of your actions and there is no expectation of privacy on any social media platform.

Think before you post – because the consequences of your speech can be severe.

On the flip side, I tell people if they are being harassed online to document all the instances and take screenshots of all the offending posts – particularly in situations where the person who is making the statements are doing so from their own profile because you never know if/when they might re-think their actions and delete them.

If you need a resource that explains the legal dos and don’ts of social media in plain English, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need a resource to help protect yourself against harassment and cyberharassment, I recommend The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.

If you want to chat more about freedom of speech and cyberharassment, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Value Your Rights this Independence Day

American Flag by joewcampbell from Flickr

American Flag by joewcampbell from Flickr

Happy Independence Day! I hope you all enjoy your holiday with your loved ones. While you’re enjoying your barbecues and fireworks, please take a minute to reflect on the reason we have this holiday – our nation’s founding fathers were unhappy with their government and so they stood up for themselves.

I’m so grateful that we live in a democracy that gives us the freedom of speech. Thanks to the social media platforms, online petitions, and blogging, it’s easier than ever to be heard. Now more than ever Joe Average has a voice that can reach millions.

Of course the freedom of speech comes with the responsibility of accepting the consequences of our statements. If you have something to say, you better be ready and willing to own it in every arena and face the backlash (good and bad) that may result.  We don’t have the right to be forgotten and everything we say online is permanently saved on a server somewhere. So before you make a post or send a text, be ready to have it follow you around for the rest of your life. I constantly tell people my two rules of thumb.

  • Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.
  • Assume everything you post will be seen by your best friend, worst enemy, boss, and mother. If you don’t want one of them to see something, don’t post it.

Our democracy not only gives us the ability to voice our opinions, but it also gives us an obligation to do so when it comes to our leaders. They work for us and the good politicians respect the fact that they their job is to be of service, and it’s a temporary position. If there is an issue that you care about, please write, call, or tweet at your elected official. Go to their town hall meetings and coffee meet-ups. Your opinion matters and it does make a difference.

I regularly contact my representatives and tell them how I want them to vote on bills. I question candidates about their platforms. Sometimes I tell them why I think their views are wrong or what it will take to get my vote. I’ve told my fair share of candidates who are pro-business by against same-sex marriage that they should support same-sex marriage, regardless of their views about homosexuality, because marriage is good for the economy. People spend a ton of money on weddings.

And when your representatives vote in a way that reflects your views, thank them. They work for us and they need to be told when they’re doing a good job.

Happy Fourth of July everyone! And a special thank you to everyone who has served and is currently serving in our military to keep us safe and free.

On Being an Outspoken Blogger

Call a spade a spade by scarycurlgirl_photos from Flickr

Call a spade a spade by scarycurlgirl_photos from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking at TechPhx last weekend. My presentation was entitled The Legal Side of Blogging: 10 Questions to Ask Before you hit “Publish.” We had a great discussion about how to be an outspoken blogger without setting yourself up to get sued for defamation or invasion of privacy. Hat tip to Tyler Hurst who joined us via Ustream from Portland.

I walked away from the discussion with the reminder that big problems can result from little mistakes. Often times saying less is the best course of action. Sometimes it’s best to point out the dots and let your readers connect them. If there’s a news story that’s a hot topic in your community, you may want to write about the topic in general instead of the specifics about the situation. Your readers will know what you’re alluding to without having to explicitly state it.

When you’re a passionate writer, it’s important to state the facts and your feelings as they are without over-embellishing. Don’t manipulate the facts to get the message you want. Take a step back and review your work. Ask yourself what you can think, what you know, and what you can prove. When something is a rumor or an allegation, state that and cite your source when you can. Always be mindful of the fact that you can be sued for defamation if you repeat someone else’s defamatory statement – even if you didn’t know it was false.

One of my favorite ways to state my views without having to be so blunt about it is to quote someone who shares my perspective. I could call someone that I dislike or disapprove of an ass on my blog, but I think it’s more fun and effective to listen when others are talking about the issue and quote one of them when I hear them say “He’s a prick.”

If you want to learn more about your online dos and don’ts, check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can also connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Is It Illegal to Tweet Lies?

Last week during Hurricane Sandy, many of us turned to Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates about the storm. An anonymous person using the handle @ComfortablySmug made several tweets.

  • BREAKING: Con Edison has begun shutting down all power in Manhattan
  • BREAKING: Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter
  • BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.

It was later revealed that the information was false, but not before these tweets were retweeted more than 500 times according to reports.

Buzzfeed’s Jack Stuef investigated the situation and determined that the anonymous tweeter was Shashank Tripathi, a campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Christopher Wight. Tripathi has since resigned from his position and tweeted an apology for posting inaccurate information. That was his latest tweet from that account.

The New York District Attorney’s Office was asked to pursue criminal charges against Tripathi for his irresponsible tweeting. It will be interesting to see if he’s charged.

What Might He Be Charged With?
In many situations, it’s not illegal to lie unless you’re entering realms like fraud or identity theft. I did some digging in the Arizona criminal code and I could see a prosecutor making an argument that a person who posts inaccurate information during an emergency could be charged with electronic harassment, falsely reporting an emergency or causing public panic, creating a hoax, or possibly something along the lines of disorderly conduct.

Some of these crimes, like electronic harassment, require a victim and Tripathi didn’t appear to have a target. I wonder if issues like this might make the prosecution’s job harder.

What About Tripathi’s Right to be Anonymous?
Yes, the First Amendment protects your right to free speech, including your right to speak anonymously. It does not guarantee your anonymity. If you want to be anonymous, you have the responsibility of not making it easy for others to figure out who you are. Apparently @ComfortablySmug was unmasked because he posted censored pictures of himself and the uncensored version was easily discovered and revealed his identity.

If he committed a crime, his right to be anonymous also went out the window.

What do you think should happen to Shashank Tripathi? Should he be charged with a crime for tweeting lies about Hurricane Sandy? Please share your opinion as a comment below.

If you want to learn more about your online dos and don’ts, check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can also connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Reflections on the Freedom of Speech

 

Improv AZ's Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Improv AZ’s Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Free Speech Week occurs this month!

I was out walking my dog yesterday morning when I received a surprising and disappointing email. I responded with a pretty loud, “FUCK!” I think everyone within a half block of me who wasn’t wearing earbuds heard me. As I finished my walk, I started reflecting on the freedom of speech.

As a flash mobber and an outspoken blogger, I’m grateful we have the freedom of speech in the United States. When I have strong feelings about a topic, I get to express them. People in some other countries aren’t so lucky.

I’m also a big fan of the idea that you have to accept the consequences of what you do and say. Now, I like the word “fuck” as much as I like words like “superfluous” and “misanthropic.” Speech is a wonderful powerful thing. But not everyone likes what I have to say or the way I say it sometimes, but when I say something, I own it. And I completely accept it when people dislike me because I share my points of view. I may not like it when people disagree with me, but I accept it.

My mantra is “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” The same concept applies to anything in public. If you say it, own it. If you realize after the fact that you said something you shouldn’t have, or you shared your view based on incomplete data, apologize for it.

Despite our right to share our feelings and opinions, the freedom of speech isn’t completely free. We accept restrictions on our First Amendment rights based on time, place, and manner all the time. We can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre where there are no flames present. We can’t threaten the life of the President. We accept that you must be 18 years old to purchase or create pornographic images. I won’t wear my shirt that says “Do Epic Shit” across the back to establishments where children are generally present, or at least I put a jacket over it. We accept these limitations as necessary for the betterment of society.

When we celebrate our right to the freedom of speech, we need to respect others’ right to express themselves too. There are times when I hear people who make my stomach churn and my blood boil and the only thing I can do is walk away, which is not always easy when you live in Arizona. But I respect their right to express their views.

A few years ago I was on a run and I encountered a group of people protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood. As I approached them I cheered, “Go First Amendment!” When one of them offered me a pamphlet, I declined and said, “Oh no. I support abortion.”  If I want to dance in the streets and express my views in my forum, I have to respect their right to peacefully protest on public property.