In the age of social media, it is important to remember that while you may appear anonymous in your postings, chances are that you can be identified if someone works hard enough. If you handle your postings through Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, you, might be harder to track, just ask the Democratic National Committee, but most Americans can be tracked down because we aren’t nearly devious enough. So if, in a political cat fight, you accuse a member of the other side of being a child molester, it could go badly for you.
Here’s the facts as laid out in a recently completed jury trial in Cherokee County, Georgia. The Tea Party Patriots and a rival group, the Tea Party Express, were having a tit-for-tat argument as rival political groups are want to do. Mr. James Lyle, the ultimate plaintiff in the case, was the significant other to Amy Kremer, who had left the Patriots and helped the Express get its footing. Lyles and Kremer were in the crosshairs of the Patriots because of supposed theft of email lists, contributor lists and such when Kremer left Patriots. Mr. Lee Martin, an officer of the Patriots, put up a post on Facebook, under a false identity of Dale Butterworth, accusing James Lyle of being a child molester. Butterworth, err Martin, made the accusation that Kremer’s daughter had accused Lyle of abusing her and that Kremer had kicked her own daughter out of the house. “Would you side with a child molester over your own daughter just to keep a roof over your head?” the post of Butterworth, err Martin, read.
It was alleged that the post was only viewable for 20 minutes before Butterworth, err Martin, took it down. The “24 hour rule” about not sending a snarly letter until you’ve had 24 hours to think about it would have been a good idea here.
A general law reminder here: Libel is when something false and damaging about someone is printed, slander is when something false and damaging about someone is spoken. Obviously someone can both slander and libel a person, but in this case, it is libel because it was printed (posted on Facebook).
After a jury trial, the jury returned a $833,000 verdict against Martin AND the Patriots. One of the interesting arguments for the Patriots being liable for Martin’s actions was that the Patriots picked the lawyer for Martin, therefore the Patriots were all in this case. The case may get appealed, as these things are wont to do, so a final decision may be a year away.
But in this age of Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Tinder and Facebook, it is important to recognize that a post, tweet, text or whatever is potentially a libelous act. The length of time it is posted is relevant only for the issues of damages. The longer it remains up, the stronger the damages one can expect. And in the political realm where people tend not to “forgive and forget”, calling someone a child molester may result in a hefty penalty.