Many individuals are more open to share their opinions when it is done through social media posts or comments, yet is there a point when their views could be seen as defamation of character?
Immediate judging by the public
In a court of law, someone is innocent until proven guilty. When it comes to social media however, people are often figuratively burned at the stake the second they are accused of a crime. It doesn’t help that local news sources appear quick to run stories online the second they catch wind of a crime, especially one that is likely to result in a lot of judgmental chatter. Even if court proceedings exonerate a defendant, the sting of being deemed a criminal in the social media limelight is slow to heal. Things said either vocally or by the written word can damage the public outlook on that person with the ability to ruin their reputation forever, regardless of whether or not the comments are true.
Social media witch hunts often occur when an arrest is reported, yet they can also happen when any story of interest hits social media news feeds. Recently a local high school football coach in southern Utah was relieved of his duties while school officials assured everyone he was not being disciplined for anything and would continue teaching classes. Despite the school’s attempt to limit possible rumors that would fan the fire for slanderous comments, a twist on the story from multiple news stations quickly threw the story out to the allegorical wolves.
Opinions or fabricated facts
Within a short amount of time of the story hitting social media, hundreds of comments from the public followed on the public post. Some of these comments were speculations onto the reasons for the loss of the coach’s position, while others made blatant attacks on the coach’s character, making claims that were severe in nature and could possibly alter the way other’s regarded him. One individual claimed the coach “tortured” her family, which is possibly an exaggeration from an offended parent whose kid sat on the bench, not an actual claim of physical assault. That comment had the potential to cause others to be concerned about the possibility of the coach being violent towards his students and therefore could be seen as defamation.
Freedom of speech or criminal defamation?
According to Utah law, there is a fine line between stating opinions and spreading false information. When someone crosses that line and spreads rumors that could hurt another person, they may end up facing criminal charges for defamation. Utah Code 76-9-404 states, “A person is guilty of criminal defamation if he knowingly communicates to any person orally or in writing any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” Section 76-9-404 goes on to warn the public that “[c]riminal defamation is a class B misdemeanor.” According to Utah State Courts, if someone is convicted of criminal defamation, they may face “[u]p to six months in jail” as well as a fine “up to $1,000”. Defamation may also be prone to result in civil charges as well as criminal.
Nothing but the truth
If a person makes a statement about another that has the potential to greatly damage that individual’s reputation, they had better be sure what they are saying or writing is true. In fact, the truth is the best defense in cases of criminal defamation. For more information on criminal defamation or other offenses against public order and decency, contact a criminal defense attorney.