Feuding Neighbours: Facebook Defamation

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A defendant’s liability for posting defamatory content on social media forms the subject of a number of recent court decisions, and encompasses potential vicarious liability for responding comments or replies posted by others.

In the recent case of Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686, the Supreme Court of British Columbia awarded the Plaintiff, a teacher, significant damages against his next door neighbour for posting defamatory comments on the Facebook social media network.

The parties’ acrimonious relationship began in 2011, when the Defendant installed a fish pond along the property line. In June 2014, the Defendant made several Facebook postings about the Plaintiff, accusing him of setting up a 24-hour surveillance system to monitor her backyard and children. The postings could be viewed by all Facebook users, including her 2,000 Facebook “friends”. Her remarks, along with her friends’ replies, implied that that the Plaintiff was a pedophile.

One of the Defendant’s friends forwarded the Defendant’s initial post to the principal of the school where the Plaintiff taught. This caused the Plaintiff to suffer serious professional and personal consequences.

The Defendant did not defend the action, and the Plaintiff obtained default judgment for damages and costs to be assessed.

The court found the Defendant liable for defamation. Her Facebook posts and subsequent replies to her friends’ comments, together and by innuendo, implied that the Plaintiff was a pedophile unfit to teach, and were therefore defamatory in nature. The postings were completely false, unjustified, and resulted in serious damage to the Plaintiff’s reputation. Though the Defendant deleted the posts from her own Facebook page after a day, the Defendant did not offer a retraction or apology, and did nothing to counteract the effect of her posts having “gone viral” through her friends.

The Defendant was found liable for her friends’ republication of her defamatory postings, as republication was the natural and probable result of her posts.

The Court also found the Defendant liable for her friends’ defamatory replies to her postings. It was apparent that her Facebook page was being constantly viewed but she did not actively monitor and control the comments. She failed to delete them within a reasonable time given the gravity of the remarks and the ease with which deletion could be accomplished – i.e. immediately.

The Defendant’s liability also accounted for the actions of her friend who sent the defamatory post to the Plaintiff’s school principal. Her friend had previously advised on Facebook that he would “let the world know” about the Plaintiff, and the Court found that the Defendant’s silence effectively served as authorization for republication. She failed to warn him to not take measures on his own.

The court found that the Defendant’s thoughtless and reckless actions effectively destroyed the Plaintiff’s reputation as a teacher. He was entitled to significant general ($50,000) and punitive ($15,000) damages.

While the outcome of each case is ultimately fact specific, Pritchard showcases the heightened responsibility borne by users of social media, whose comments may be widely circulated by others and prompt dialogue that is itself defamatory and likely to attract liability on the part of the author of a defamatory ‘thread’ or remark.   The result is, in effect, to impose a positive duty on the part of social media users – to exercise care in published statements but also to monitor and curtail the responding comments of others having access to online comments, including one’s so-called “friends” to whom defamatory posts may be accessible.