Attorney: Crude posts on local high school Facebook pages vulnerable to libel suits
A woman named JoAnna gave us only her first name in order to protect her daughter’s identity. Video by IdahoOnYourSide.comvideo
A woman named JoAnna gave us only her first name in order to protect her daughter’s identity.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” JoAnna said.
JoAnna's daughter attends a Meridian high school with a Facebook confessions page.
“This just broke my back,” JoAnna said. “It was just phenomenal how gross it could be. One kid was talking about how he mutilated his dog.”
Public Facebook pages advertising their posts as "confessions" began proliferating at Treasure Valley high schools earlier this year. While schools may struggle to identify and then punish off-campus posters (who might even be alumni), victims may be able to get the job done with the help of a lawyer. If posts are false, they reflect negatively on the victim and they’re disseminated in writing (or by a method that shares the characteristics of writing), they then qualify as libel.
“And I would say that Facebook probably shares the characteristics of writing,” Boise attorney Jeff Strother said.
Even more troublesome for confessions-page posters, certain kinds of libel don’t require the victim to prove he or she suffered monetary damages. The law views these statements as so defamatory it presumes monetary damages just based on the context of the remarks.
“You look at it and you say: Well, that’s awful,” Strother said.
We call this “libel per se,” and it includes falsely saying someone committed a crime or contracted a venereal disease – accusations we find on the confession pages of several valley schools.
“Teacher having sex with a student? Yes, libel per se,” Strother said.
According to Strother, that teacher could then sue the Facebook commenter for libel. As could a kid falsely accused in a post of taking illegal drugs before class. And – at least traditionally – a young woman falsely accused of engaging in premarital sex.
"The fact that they're 16 is not the decisive factor perhaps,” Strother said, “but how much money they have. A young kid usually doesn't have much money and if you saddle him with an enormous judgment, it's just a quick trip down the road to the bankruptcy courts."
But while confession-page victims might win libel suits, those who study bullying say doing so likely won't help a kid win social acceptance.
“They do need to be independent and they need to learn how to stand up for themselves,” author, bullying expert and former educator Jennie Withers said.
Withers recommended authority figures play the role of mediator instead of disciplinarian.
“If [it’s me] doing something wrong,” she said, “I’d like to be able to be educated first.”