Choose Facebook words carefully

Good for Pike County Circuit Judge David Strong, who recently held a Summit woman accountable for her slanderous comments on Facebook about a locally owned business.

   Srong issued a judgment against the woman, ordering her to pay more than $134,000 in damages and attorney fees to the owner of a shop after the woman had said on her Facebook page that those who shopped at this particular business were “supporting child molesters.”  The shop owner hired a lawyer, who proved the allegations untrue, and sued the Summit woman, winning the case.

Before the advent of social media platforms like Facebook gave everyone a microphone for their opinions, this is exactly the kind of slur that would have been spoken privately — if at all — instead of being available for any Facebook user.

“Traditional media” like a newspaper, radio station or TV station that published such an allegation without evidence would be an automatic candidate for a lawsuit. People may not realize this, but it is an intentional quirk of federal law that social media companies are not liable for the things their customers put online.  Those who make the slanderous comments may be held liable, however.

The biggest complaint about platforms like Facebook is the lack of restraint by some of its users. They feel perfectly comfortable insulting others, and this has wound up coarsening public debate instead of making it healthier. Occasionally, as in the case of the Summit woman against the shop owner, the insults must be resolved in court.

Facebook and its peers are starting to clamp down on some prominent falsehoods. But social media companies won’t truly clean up their act until the law holds both the companies and their customers liable for what goes online.

Opponents of this say it would restrict free speech. That is not true, because there have always been restrictions on free speech. You can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium as a prank, for example. 

Facebook users must begin to understand that they do not have free rein to say anything they want to, even though readers may respond with a “like” or express agreement with them.  The laws against slander still apply.

Applying greater free speech restrictions to social media will correct an imbalance and make these companies play by the same rules of opinion and commentary as everyone else.