“If one writes in a secret Facebook group something not very complimentary about another Facebook member, and that person finds out and prints a screenshot of the posting, does one need to be concerned about legal liability?
Also, if said person wants to write an apology, would a lawyer recommend that this was an OK way to prevent a lawsuit? Or would the apology be used as possible evidence toward a libel suit?”
Let me guess, this is strictly hypothetical, right?
Seriously, I’ve been telling people for years that they have to be careful about things they post on social media. Even a “closed” Facebook group (there is really no such thing as a “secret” Facebook group) is public information. Once you post something there, it is there forever, and sooner or later anyone who really wants this information can get access to it.
Assuming that “someone” is you, if what you wrote in your posting is 100% accurate, you will have nothing to worry about. Truth is an absolute defense to any sort of libel or slander lawsuit.
If what you wrote in your posting is merely an opinion (as opposed to a statement of fact or accusing someone of a legal violation), you also probably would have nothing to worry about. Saying “so-and-so is a jerk” is a lot different — and a lot safer — than saying “so-and-so has engaged in illegal or immoral behavior.” If the person you posted about is offended, they can easily come back at you by saying, “Yeah, and your mother, too.” At least that’s what we used to do in my childhood days in the Bronx.
If what you wrote in your posting is a statement of fact that is not correct and was intended to cause harm to the person you posted about, you may have something to worry about. If, however, the person about whom you posted is as impecunious as you are (i.e., they are not filthy rich people who enjoy bringing lawsuits as a blood sport), you probably have nothing to worry about.
If what you wrote in your posting is a statement of fact that is not correct and was intended to cause harm to the person you posted about, and that person has the money, resources and time to crush you in our wonderful American legal system, you should see an attorney as soon as possible to begin preparing your defense.
As for apologizing, until you know exactly which of the above situations applies, I would not recommend you post anything further to this Facebook group. Wait until you get some sort of response from the person you posted about. As you recognize, there is a chance that any apology at this time would be viewed as an “admission of liability,” which could be used as ammunition against you in a court of law. If the person replies, I would ignore him or her. Getting involved in a long-winded, lengthy online battle with someone — even if you sincerely feel you are in the right — always, always makes you look like a loser.
In the future, before posting anything online, subject it to the “political opponent” test: If you were running for public office and your opponent got hold of this posting and put it in an attack ad to destroy your credibility as a candidate, would you be concerned? If the answer is yes or maybe, don’t post it. If the answer is no, sleep on it and look at it again in the morning when you are fresh before posting.
The best two pieces of advice about social media behavior came from your great-grandmother. Now, Grannie didn’t know a whole lot about technology, but (if she was like mine) she was wise in the ways of people. Here are two pieces of advice she gave you (or should have) that are just as applicable today as they were in days long ago:
“People judge you by the company you keep.” If I look at your Facebook page and I think all of your friends are imbeciles (using, of course, my most professional judgment), I’m going to think you are an imbecile as well, unless I know you well. Human nature is not charitable; give someone a chance to think something awful about you, and most people will take advantage of it. Then (as a lawyer would say) you will have to “rebut” their presumption of imbecility.
“In order to have friends, you must be a friend.” Social media is interactive by definition. You interact with other people online, but they can interact with you as well. So, if I post something on Facebook asking you to go out and buy my latest book (or recommend it favorably on Amazon), you can ask me to sponsor you on your next run for cancer.
As a famous diplomat once said, “Don’t put anything in writing if you can say it instead; don’t say something if you can nod your head instead; and never nod your head in the presence of witnesses.”
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.