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BENCH BLOG: Defamation on Facebook

Jean DiMotto is a retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge. She served for 16 years, and was on the criminal bench for 12 of those years.

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after 16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge. She also serves of counsel with Nistler Law Firm. She can be reached at [email protected]

In this age of cyberspace incivility, do remarks on Facebook that impugn a person’s reputation and character constitute defamation?

In the case of Laughland v. Beckett, the Court of Appeals answered “yes.”

The Facebook account

John Beckett created a Facebook account under the name of Stephen Laughland and posted a photo of Laughland. At the time, Laughland was an adjunct lecturer at various Milwaukee-area schools, including Marquette University. Indeed, the picture Beckett used on the faux account was from Marquette’s website.

Beckett put posts up on the Facebook page over a period of four months. The initial post called Laughland a “preying swindler” and remarked, “Since he knows so much about bank manipulation Marquette must have beleived (sic) that he was an excellent choice to teach Bank Management.”

Pretending to be Laughland, Beckett later posted, “Manipulation, control and, deceipt (sic)! I would like to continue my useless life. I have no problem being a debt to society as long as I can continue (to) manipulate people, banks, and credit card companies. I wonder what my children think about having such a loser for a father.”

In another post on the fictitious Laughland page, Beckett wrote, “It is nice being a loser and taking advantage of banks and credit card companies. I am not sure why more people have not caught onto the fact that I am a low life manipulative person.”

Other posts asserted that Laughland “defrauded banks,” was “corrupt,” and engaged in “underhanded business practices.”

Beyond posting these remarks, Beckett requested that Laughland’s friends become “friends” of the Facebook page. As a result of his efforts, six people decided to “like” the page.

One of Laughland’s acquaintances emailed Laughland in the fourth month to say, “I received a (Facebook) friend request from you however, it must be someone using your name. It says horrible things about you.”

Laughland conducted a Google search and found the Facebook account.

Laughland initially suspected the perpetrator was Jean Placke, a woman with whom he was enmeshed in a child-custody battle. It was later discovered that Beckett, Placke’s on-and-off boyfriend, was responsible for everything on the account. Beckett had never met Laughland.

Bench trial

Laughland sued Beckett for defamation. The case was tried without a jury before Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Christopher Foley. Beckett asserted that he had not defamed Laughland but merely expressed opinions founded on factual information culled from public records.

On both Google and the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website, Beckett had found records of Laughland’s foreclosures and bankruptcies. He concluded that Laughland’s financial difficulties were the result of Laughland’s being “irresponsible” and “reckless.”

Foley disagreed with Beckett that these records allowed him to publish so-called opinions suggesting that Laughland was a swindler and bank manipulator. Rather the statements were defamatory. He found that Beckett’s connection with Placke motivated him to try to impress her and was the source of the malice and ill will toward Laughland.

Foley awarded $15,000 in general damages and $10,000 in punitive damages. Beckett appealed.

Appellate opinion

The District I Court of Appeals decision was written by Judge Joan Kessler. After dealing in a matter-of-fact way with a question concerning the statute of limitations, she turned to the nature of the posted material and Beckett’s reasons for appealing Foley’s ruling.

Beckett first asserted that the statements were substantially true since the doctrine of substantial truth permits “slight inaccuracies of expression.” He argued that all his posts on the Facebook page were grounded in public records.

But the court noted that Beckett had claimed that Laughland “defrauded banks,” was “corrupt,” a “low life loser” and a “swindler” who used “underhanded business practices” and “manipulated banks and credit card companies.” The court concluded that none of the public records contained evidence to support any of these allegations.

Instead of being substantially true, the posts were found by the court to consist solely of “Beckett’s speculation.”

Moreover, the court rejected the second ground that Beckett had cited for his appeal, in which he had argued the posts were protected as opinions. The court noted that merely phrasing communications as opinions, suspicions or beliefs does not prevent them from being defamatory. Here, there was no factual basis for Beckett’s “opinions.”

Lastly, Beckett questioned whether Laughland’s reputation had indeed suffered any harm. Beckett noted that only one person had reported the Facebook page to Laughland. The court agreed with Foley that Beckett’s posts were not only meant to besmirch Laughland’s reputation but also had the intended effect.

For example, the acquaintance who reported the page to Laughland characterized the posts as saying “horrible” things about him. Moreover, at least six “friends” ended up viewing the page, which could be accessed other social media users as well.

It also noted when analyzing the damages award that Laughland’s Google search of his own name had shown the Facebook page as the first hit, “so I knew everyone could see it.” Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed Foley’s decision concerning both liability and damages.

Commentary

What a pathetic attempt to win a woman’s heart – by defaming the father of her child because she was in a custody entanglement with him! In this day of digital anonymity, though, this suitor almost got away with it.

The case is recommended for publication because it is an unprecedented look at defamation in the context of social media.

Social media increase the risk of far-reaching defamatory damage, as attested here by the Google search results showing the Facebook page as the first hit. Still, this case found evidence that a mere six people’s “liking” the page and one acquaintance’s email about it were sufficient proof of harm, given the false and derogatory posts.

Finally, this case does a good job of distinguishing factual foundations from opinions and speculative inferences.


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