When Online Behavior Crosses The Line – The Law On Threats, Libel And Just Being Rude

by Gray Reed & McGraw
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A frequent question we get is what can we do about the online posting about me?  Often times, the answer is not much.  Lawyers can only help when the online conduct crosses the line into a cognizable cause of action. Figuring that out is the hard part.

The Threatening or Harassing Post

Is there an ex spewing hate against you on Facebook?  Is a disgruntled fan or customer telling the world what they would like to do you?  Many times, the First Amendment will protect their conduct.  Sometimes, however, the law can help.

Take for example, a “fan” of the New York Knicks who suggested the owner of the team needed to die with posts that included naked pictures of the poster with a gun.  The police arrested him.

Sports often bring out the worst.  I’ve seen some of it with my own sports teams with the Michael Sam story and the question of whether the Houston Texans will use the first pick on Johnny Football.

Most fan rants are protected by the First Amendment, but threats of immenint harm or immediate calls to illegal actions are not.   Jack Greiner of the Graydon Head Out of the Box Blog blog breaks down the law on threats versus free speech in this case here.  The oversimplification is that if a reasonable person would believe the speaker has an intent to cause actual harm, then it can become a threat and not mere protected speech.   Moreover, when the target of the threat is a sport figure or politician, it may not be realistic to think the person would actually act it out, but there are enough crazy people out there for law enforcement to take a close look at some of these cases.

In addition to threats, may states, like Texas, have online harassment laws.  Perhaps, your ex knows better than to make a physical threat, but continuously harasses you. In Texas, a person commits an offense if the person “uses the name or persona of another person to create a web page on or to post one or more messages on a commercial social networking site: (1) without obtaining the other person’s consent; and (2) with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person.”

It is also crime to: “send[] an electronic mail, instant message, text message, or similar communication that references a name, domain address, phone number, or other item of identifying information belonging to any person: (1) without obtaining the other person’s consent; (2) with the intent to cause a recipient of the communication to reasonably believe that the other person authorized or transmitted the communication; and (3) with the intent to harm or defraud any person.”

Revenge Porn

The American Bar Association recently wrote an excellent article on revenge porn you can read here. For the uninitiated, revenge porn is when the ex publishes what were supposed to be private nude pictures for the world to see often including full names, addresses, phone numbers and links to social media profiles. There is a whole cottage industry bubbling up of websites who encourage posters to provide this information.

As a victim, you can bring civil claims like invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and copyright claims if you took a selfie because the copyright usually belongs to the photographer and not the subject. But, these claims are expensive to bring and there are no guaranties because a lot of people blame the victim for having nude pictures in the first place.

Meanwhile, it is hard to sue the websites where these pictures are downloaded because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives immunity to websites based on claims related to user generated content.

California passed a law last month that seeks to punish “Any person who photographs or records by any means the image of the intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person, under circumstances where the parties agree or understand that the image shall remain private, and the person subsequently distributes the image taken, with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the depicted person suffers serious emotional distress.”

Professor Goldman on his Technology and Marketing Law Blog points out the faults of the law which include: (i) it does not apply to selfies; (ii) it does not apply to redistribution or websites which could have Section 230 issues; and (iii) the difficulty in proving beyond a reasonable doubt the parties’ expectations of privacy or the intent of the accused.

While there are some class action lawsuits against some of the sites that encourage this behavior that we will keep an eye on, one of the best weapons may be to shine the light on the scum who engage in revenge porn using the same social media tools and the let the markets take care of the websites.

Civil Claims

Most of the examples so far deal with criminal complaints.  To do that, you need to get the D.A.’s attention. What about a civil lawsuit?  What can you do if the police or the D.A. won’t act?

You can follow the lead of a woman who is suing Sprint for invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and identity theft after a Sprint employee posted explicit pictures of the customer who turned in a phone for an upgrade.  You can read more about the case here.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress can be a tough case to prove and the invasion of privacy of laws differ in each state.

Parents are also taking to the civil courts to address cyberbullying.

Related Posts

For tips on handling consumer reviews, go here and here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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