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Social Media and the Law

The intersection of new technologies like social media and the law seems to be quite a busy place. It seems that every day I read at least one or more articles, blog posts, or letter to Dear Abby addressing matters involving social media and the law. In addition, the advice columns seem to be inundated with etiquette questions in regard to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. While the law has not entirely caught up to technology, it is important to keep in mind that what you do with social media can have real world legal consequences. As social media professionals, we need to keep this reality in mind, and also help counsel clients to avoid potential problems.

One area that has been getting some attention lately is that of defamation. While websites and social media platforms are generally protected from liability for users’ defamatory posts, individuals do not enjoy the same type of immunity. I know those of us in the legal community who are involved in social media are anxious to see how the first high profile defamation case turns out. A lawsuit has been filed against Courtney Love by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir over Love’s less than friendly tweets about Simorangkir following a dispute over payment for clothing provided to Love.

While this is not the first lawsuit involving Twitter, it is the first that seems slated to go to trial and potentially set legal precedent about alleged defamatory statements made via social media. The honor for the first celebrity libel lawsuit filed goes to Saint Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, who sued Twitter over an impersonator who claimed to be tweeting as LaRussa. That case settled, hence the interest that the Love lawsuit could proceed to trial. It’s not necessarily a slam dunk, as Simorangkir will have to show not only that Love’s tweets were defamatory, but also that they resulted in damage to the fashion designer. The trial is scheduled to start February 5, so we’ll see what happens .

The real world legal consequences of social media use are becoming more apparent every day. A recent headline here in southwest Florida detailed two high school students who were arrested for making a fake Facebook profile of a fellow student that featured the girl’s head Photoshopped on to nude images of other women’s bodies. Concerns over cyberbullying are driving new laws that are aimed at protecting students and others as they interact online. You may have seen that California recently enacted a law making it a crime to impersonate another person online. This law seems to be targeted at cyberbullying or fraudulent activity as another party online, and does not address satire. It carries potential penalties of up to $1,000 or up to a year in jail for violations.

Now this post is not meant to scare people, but to help all of us as social media professionals to understand the importance of staying informed of the laws that can impact social media users and providers. The best advice is to arm yourself with knowledge, or to consult an attorney in your area to help you plan to avoid problems for yourself or your business. I’ll be covering these specific areas in more detail as we go, but I think this is a good overview of current issues. As always, this post is not intended to be legal advice, or the substitute for the advice of a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

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