A recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes 14-year-old Alexandria Boston as “a slender, rough-and-tumble sort of girl” who looked forward to her middle school’s annual field day activities.
But last year was different. Instead of letting loose a little at the balloon toss, Alexandria found herself the target of cruel taunts. Two of her classmates had created a fake Facebook page for Alexandria that was anything but friendly.
The fraudulent page distorted Alexandria’s face to make her look like a puffy freak. It suggested she liked sex, smoking pot and spoke a language called “Retardish.” Alexandria’s cyber-bullies then posted a racist video and obscene comments on other’s pages in her name.
Alexandria’s parents went to the police, who said they could do nothing because no crime had been committed. They went to Cobb County school officials, who suspended the miscreants for two days for using cell phones to take pictures at school but also lacked the authority under Georgia law to discipline them for off-campus activities.
The parents asked people who knew their daughter to “defriend” the page and report it to Facebook. That was done several times, the Journal-Constitution reports, but nearly a year later the page was still up.
So Alexandria’s parents did what many red-blooded Americans would do at that point. They helped their daughter hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.
The suit, alleging libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress, was filed last month against the parents of the alleged authors of the page. Although school officials were not included, Alexandria’s parents hope the suit will lead to legislation that could give schools more authority to stop cyberbullying.
Bill Nigut, the Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Journal-Constitution the case will be interesting to watch because it may present the court with the question of whether a school can be held legally liable for the activities and behavior of students off campus.
As much as I’d like to see Alexandria win her lawsuit, I’d hate to see the schools ultimately held accountable. Schools are already held responsible for all sorts of social ills not of their making, and have enough trouble teaching simple things like math and history, let alone human relations. Besides, recent local stories suggest schools have their hands full with playground bullies, let alone the ones stalking cyberspace.
I like to think of the law as setting the minimum acceptable level of behavior, and to me, tormenting a 14-year-old online falls well below that line. There oughta be a law. I’m not so sure, though, if that law is the law of libel.
One of the elements a libel plaintiff must prove is that a reasonable person who knows them would believe the defamatory material is true. Outrageous, unbelievable lies don’t damage a person’s reputation in the eyes of the law, so they aren’t considered libelous. That may or may not be a defense in this case, but parodies and what the courts call “rhetorical hyperbole” are protected expression.
The law of libel evolved that way so social satirists could poke fun at public figures, and may not be an effective way to protect the rights of a 14-year-old to go to school unmolested by cyber-bullies. A better legal approach would seem to be the second tort the Bostons sued under, the intentional infliction of emotional distress. That, though, remains a murky, ill-defined area of the common law, one that judges, attorneys and civil libertarians like to avoid.
All of this, of course, might have been avoided if the parents of the offending students had forced them to remove the page, or if Facebook itself had acted quickly to take it down.
The Bostons’ attorney told the Journal-Constitution neither she nor the family has had contact with the other students or their parents. She did say, however, that after a story about the incident aired recently on CNN, Facebook officials contacted her to offer an apology. And the page has since been taken down as well.
Facebook might have faced a lawsuit of its own under the old common law of libel: Anyone who republishes a defamatory statement is equally guilty of libel. But more recent federal statutes specifically protect as common carriers media outlets like Facebook (or The Evening Sun, for that matter) that allow online users to post their own content. They say that’s the price of a robust, uninhibited Internet.
In this era of anonymous online smear, it also makes tracking down the irresponsible parties difficult at best, and some legal commentators suggest the Internet is killing libel law just like it is killing newspapers.
The law of free speech has evolved to shield those who attack elected officials and public figures, but it seems less well-equipped to protect 14-year-old girls from teases and taunts.
We need to teach our children the real meaning of free speech, and that if you cross the line, yes, hurtful words can get you sued.
But it seems like in this case, the law has a lot of growing up to do, too.
Marc Charisse is editor of The Evening Sun. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @esmcharisse
TO LEARN MORE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offers the following advice for parents, taken from the Anti-Defamation League:
- Insist that your children allow you to “friend” them on Facebook.
- Monitor incoming and outgoing postings on your child’s Facebook page.
- Make sure your child understands that social media accounts are a privilege, not a right.
- Encourage students not to “like,” or in any way perpetuate by sending to other friends, messages of hate.
- For more information about the Anti-Defamation League’s CyberAlly training model, log onto www.adl.org.