[The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Patrick E. Jones or the Belize Media Group]
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK
We have all been witnesses to, or have even been subject to slanderous attacks by persons on Facebook. These unfair and libelous attacks seem to be occurring with an even greater frequency and ferocity on Facebook lately. This may be explained by the exponential utilization of Facebook as a communication method for Belizeans.
However, it may be attributed to the fact that some persons feel that libelous statements on Facebook does not attract the same liability as if it were radio, newspaper, television broadcasts or any other published medium. It is obvious that some feel they can launch these attacks with immunity from personal legal liability.
However, as the www.guardianuk.com put it “ if you tweet, post on Facebook or post photos on Instagram, then congratulations – you’re a publisher.” Let’s hope that this article can be a useful guide as to the law of defamation and how to protecting yourself against legal action on social media.
Way too many persons unleash vile and unfair attacks on others on Facebook, many times attempting to veil these attacks as nothing more than “an exercise of their right of freedom of expression.”
Freedom of expression is a pillar of any modern democratic society and as such is enshrined in the s5 of the Belize Constitution. This right grants each individual the right to freely express their ideas without unnecessary fetters to those expressions.
However, one’s exercise of the right to freedom of expression is accompanied by an equally important responsibility to exercise that unfairly injuring the reputation of another.
Halsburrys states “every person is entitled to his good name and to the esteem in which he is held by others, and has a right to claim that his reputation shall not be disparaged by defamatory statements made about him to a third person or persons without lawful justification or excuse.”
It further goes on to say “the essence of a defamatory statement is its tendency to injure the reputation of another person.”
While there is no instance of a person facing legal action in the Belizean courts for defamatory statements made on Facebook, there are numerous precedents in other jurisdictions.
According to www.bandwidthblog.com “Lately there have been many cases all around the world where people are liable to fines or even jail time for posting defamatory things on social media.”
For example Sue Scheff in her article “The Cost of Internet Defamation” in the Huffington Post chronicled her landmark internet defamation case in which she was granted 1.4M USD in damages.
Moreover, the fact that an individual has not pursued legal action for defamatory statements made on Facebook in Belize, does not means that statements made could not have attracted legal liability. For example, a few weeks ago Arthur Saldivar an Attorney- at-law and once a consistent caller to local radio shows was levied a judgment against him for the sum of $60,000 Bze as a result of defamatory statements he made about the Prime Minister of Belize, the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow on local radio.
A journalist in interviewing the Prime Minister asked why he pursued this legal action for defamation, when in the opinion of the journalist he is likely defamed on a daily basis? The Prime Minister’s response was that that instance was particularly vexing, hence his successful pursuit of the matter.
This should act as a cautionary tale to persons whom, believe that “Deh could seh whatever deh wah pan de deh Facebook page, no body eveva get sue anyway” While no statements made yet might have been “particularly vexing” to the subject of attacks, that does not mean that any such future defamatory statements will not cross the threshold of “vexing enough” that a person pursues legal action for defamation.
The reality is that a defamatory statement made on Facebook attracts the same liability as if the statement had been made in any other published medium.
However, it must be made abundantly clear that in no way is this warning against the exercise of one’s right to freedom of expression. This is merely a reminder that said right must be exercised responsibly and ensuring that it is not exercised at the expense of unfairly infringing the right of another.
Therefore in making posts and commentary on Facebook here are 3 simple guides to minimize one’s chances of attracting legal liability for defamation.
The first is the defense of justification which means that the statements made are true in substance and fact. There can be no liability for telling the truth for facts that you personally know to be true.
The second is the defense of fair comment which enables members of the public to express opinions on matters of public interest. The opinions expressed as fair comment must be opinions based on true facts, it only applies if they are expressions of opinion rather than statements of fact.
Last but I think most importantly in Belizean context, it must be said repetition of a rumor or gossip is not a defense to an action in defamation. In George Price v Reporter it was held that “The article complained of is not a comment. It is a re-publication of a libel even although it is attributable to someone else.” Hence it is no defense to say that someone else published it and you are simply repeating or sharing the statements. You too will become liable for such action in sharing mere gossip or rumors.
Therefore the simplest guide to avoiding legal liability for defamation on Facebook or any other medium is to tell the truth and fairly comment on things you know for a fact. Last but not least “No be so willing fi spread gossip on Facebook! It could be costly”
Orson. J. Elrington is a regionally published author on a variety of topics including trade, ICT, law and the creative industries. He is an academic standout with an A.S (HONS), B.S.(HONS), and LLB(HONS) He is also a community activist in the areas of sports, working with underprivileged children and in poverty eradication.
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