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Defamation and the Internet: Post at Your Own Risk

Some users of the Internet think that it is fair to say anything that they want because, well, it’s the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, especially when the post in question is not true. Posting something that is false about someone on the Internet is defamation. And, simply put, it can get you sued.

In most states, there are two types of defamation. There is verbal defamation, which is called slander, and there’s written defamation, which is called libel. Both can be real problems for the poster and are clearly something to avoid.

While the internet has given us a vast wisdom-filled playground, it has also created a dangerous medium that serves as a breeding ground for defamation. When a defamatory statement is made online or through social media — such as Facebook, Twitter or one of the many other websites — that involves the written (or “posted”) word, and is considered libel.

Many people have learned that the Internet allows people to post whatever they want too easily. The Internet is full of web sites where someone could intentionally or accidentally leave a potentially defamatory comment or post. While some websites review their content for inflammatory or illegal content, the screening systems are typically not designed to review every post for defamatory content or evaluate whether the content is defamatory. This is how so many defamatory and damaging postings end up online.

If you discover that you have been defamed, the first thing that you should do is consult a lawyer. Most people that post defamatory content do not understanding the ramifications of their false statements. A lawyer will advise you whether the defamatory post is actionable; i.e. can you sue the person that posted the defamatory information. While the law does not allow you to sue the website’s host or internet service provider of the website that posted a defamatory statement, the law certainly allows you to recover compensatory and punitive damages against the person that defamed you. It is not a good thing to be named as a defendant in a defamation lawsuit- they can turn nasty, ugly, and quite costly when you are assessed with six or seven figures in damages.

For example, let’s say that on your blog you wrote that Susie Smith abused her kids two weeks ago. If this statement is not true (because truth is the only absolute defense to defamation), it is defamatory. Some people that post defamatory statements think about what they are doing before they post and try to create a defense to a lawsuit in their defamatory post. It’s typically seen that these posters try to couch the defamatory statement as an opinion or an “I think…” statement. People might think that they theoretically are protected from a defamation action because their phrasing of the statement depicts an opinion and not a fact, but this is not always the case. Statements of opinion can be viewed as statements of fact depending on the circumstances, and will not automatically protect you from a defamation claim.

So, what is the best way to avoid getting sued over your posts? First, if you plan on making a bold statement on the internet, it would do you well to make sure that your statement is truthful- after you hit send, the statement cannot be retracted. Second, just think twice. Are the words that you are thinking about posting really that important to post? Whenever you post online it is always a good idea to exercise the utmost caution and avoid making any arguably questionable statements that could be construed as defamation and get you sued.

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