Finkel v. Facebook: Online Defamation Case Tests the Limits of Defamation Law

Recently we’ve seen an employer charged with defamation for making true disclosures that would hurt a former employee, and Medical Justice which seeks to prevent online defamation by prohibiting patients from participating in social media.

Now, a New York teenager has sued Facebook and a handful of its users for discussing her in a private Facebook group. Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project and Eric Goldman provide details on the case, Finkel v. Facebook, 102578-09 (N.Y. Supreme Ct. complaint filed Feb. 24, 2009).

The idea that Facebook should be liable for four teens trash-talking another is dismissable. However, the individual teens are charged with defamation as well.  Further, the complaint also alleges that the students’ parents are liable for negligently failing to supervise their children.

There are several hurdles, including how to measure the harm caused by this private correspondence between four people, and whether this discussion was discovered through means which would violate the privacy of the participants. Social media participants are figuring out what the limits of speech are in this medium, and the courts will eventually be asked to determine where legal penalties begin.

Various bullying statutes would potentially criminalize this conduct, which seems to approximate private speech. It doesn’t seem likely that such a case would gain steam. Then again we live in a time where truth may fail as a defense to defamation in Massachusetts, which is to say…anything can happen.

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