Written by: Stephen J. Corell, paralegal
If you look at the world and find yourself more stressed than you used to be, it may not be a problem with you. It may be the simple problem of having more access to items of news that can stress you out. It may not be a change in demeanor so much as an overload of information that you can do nothing about. Obviously, if you feel there are underlying issues beyond this, you should seek professional help or therapy to dive into those issues. However, you might be curious to know that the fast-spreading, information-heavy nature of the internet may have an effect on your life legally, as well as emotionally.
In some ways this makes it easier to show damage from being defamed, but this is only because the potential for personal damage is so massive. In one of the most famous examples, Nick Sandmann went after multiple news outlets for imputing racial animus when none allegedly existed. He went after them in Court and he won, receiving an unknown sum in multiple settlements. Whatever your feelings about his politics, this is an important case to follow if a similar thing happened to you, or if you are just trying to be careful about how you write something online.
The interconnectedness of social media raises the stakes for sharing misinformation, and if you have been harmed by a false story about yourself, you may be wondering what to do. You may be inclined to suit up. However, it is important to have legal counsel to fully understand the elements of a defamation or libel lawsuit before you dive into litigation. It is not as simple as feeling hurt by something someone wrote about you on the internet. We could all sue for that if it were that simple. Defamation is a complex claim with a high standard, but—as Mr. Sandmann’s claim shows—it is not without precedent, especially in today’s “retweet” culture.
If you live in New York, you will need to be aware that a claim for defamation needs to fit the State’s standards in order to be successful in Court, meaning the statement must be false, published to a third party without privilege or authorization, with fault amounting to at least negligence, and it must have caused special harm or defamation per se.
This is not to say that your legal counsel cannot attempt to acquire a settlement without going through to trial, but it is important to have a strong claim even to engage in settlement discussions, and in order to do so, a good lawyer is recommended. The Law Firm of Aaron Gavenda has experience with these types of cases and can get you started on the right path because we believe—and the facts show—that it is imperative to get started right. New York Courts have dismissed cases simply for not being particular enough, even though the facts pointed in the right direction. Words matter, especially to the Courts. Whether you are drafting a defamation complaint, or trying to avoid one, it isn’t just what you say, but how you say it that matters.
According to a ruling by the highest Court in New York, defamation is “the making of a false statement which tends to expose the plaintiff to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or induce an evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons, and to deprive him of their friendly intercourse in society.” The words “disgrace” and “public contempt” mean something different now. Your life is online, and misinformation shared about you can be common knowledge in a matter of minutes if someone—either negligently or purposefully—shares the wrong thing on a public platform.
The internet is a double-edged sword. It can connect people, but it can also make it easier to hurt people. Facebook has recently come under fire for not doing enough to stanch efforts to organize armed counter-protests. Twitter has been criticized for keeping its enforcement process for violations obscured and inconsistent. Even Instagram had to change its policies last year to strengthen enforcement and promote accountability for its moderation policies.
While some have questioned whether the current defamation laws are suitably written to handle the viral nature of social media, it seems to be an acceptable, precedent-supported way to bring justice where news agencies, individuals, and even—under certain circumstances—law firms, have essentially defiled a person’s name on the basis of wanting to get a quick story out there. While changes to the laws which would factor in the viral culture of social media may be forthcoming, defamation remains—for now—a good tool to consider.
Whatever your situation, whether you want to make sure you properly respect a person’s rights before publishing a story, or if you are a person who feels they have been wronged by public attention brought to a false or misleading story, the Law Firm of Aaron Gavenda can help you walk through it and determine if a defamation suit is the proper vehicle for your restitution. Give us a call, we’re here to help. No one should be famous for a thing that they didn’t do.