Students sued over Facebook page win dismissal of case
Four students at Oceanside High School in New York created a Facebook page targeting classmate Denise Finkel. They named their chat group “90 Cents Short of a Dollar” and described Denise as a “woman of dubious morals and character.” They joked that she used heroin and contracted AIDS by having sex with animals in Africa.
Denise filed a lawsuit in 2009 against Facebook, the four students and their parents for a total of $3 million dollars. She claimed that she was subjected to public hatred, ridicule and disgrace. The parents were accused of negligent supervision of their teenagers. Because of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, Facebook was protected from liability as a service provider for content posted by others. Consequently, the suit against Facebook was dismissed in 2009.
In July, 2010, the trial court dismissed the remainder of the case ruling that no reasonable person could believe that the alleged defamatory statements were facts. The judge stated “A reasonable reader, given the overall context of the posts, simply would not believe that the Plaintiff contracted AIDS by having sex with a horse or a baboon or that she contracted AIDS from a prostitute who also gave her crabs and syphilis, or that having contracted sexually transmitted diseases in such a manner she morphed into the devil.”
Judge Randy Sue Marber further stated that “While the posts display an utter lack of taste and propriety, they do not constitute statements of fact. The entire context and tone of the posts constitute evidence of adolescent insecurities and indulgences, and a vulgar attempt at humor. What they do not contain are statements of fact.”
Denise graduated from high school and now attends college in New York. She may appeal the court’s ruling. Readers should not take the results of Denise’s lawsuit as permission to write freely about someone else. Remember that it took almost two years before the case was dismissed which meant expenses and aggravation for everyone involved. Just because nasty, crude speech may be protected under the law doesn’t mean it’s right or moral. Consider the ethics and etiquette in all manners of communication.
In a somewhat related story, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology students and staff were blacked out from all social media for a week in September, 2010. The experiment was explained by the dean of students as a way for people to think critically about the prevalence of social media. The ban was not punishment and only included on campus computers and networks.