One of the most common fallacies surrounding the Internet and social media is that “anything goes” in the online world. People — especially kids and teenagers — tend to think that the rules of civil society don’t apply online. Because you can often hide your identity behind a screen name, it can feel as if the online world is a place where you can say anything about anybody with complete impunity.
But as more and more people are hurt by cyber bullies and online posts that heap shame or blame on individuals and businesses alike, the courts are beginning to react by handing out stiff fines or even jail time for social media posts that cross the line from free speech to illegal actions.
Sometimes, the people who go to jail for what they post online are simply asking for trouble. Consider the case of Malik First Born Allah Farrad, a Tennessee man with a felony record. It’s illegal for a convicted felon to possess a firearm, but Farrad posted selfies of himself with guns on his Facebook account. Not just once, mind you. Farrad posted a number of selfies with a variety of weapons.
The result of all those Facebook selfies? A 15 year prison sentence.
Maria Gonzalez wasn’t a criminal, just a woman coming off of a bitter divorce when she earned a jail sentence over her Facebook posts. The New York woman was under a restraining order not to contact the family of her ex-husband.
But she tagged her former sister-in-law in a couple of Facebook posts. When her former sister-in-law took her to court for violating the keep away order, she told the judge that she didn’t understand that the restraining order included Facebook communication, in that it didn’t “specifically prohibit [her] from Facebook communication” with members of the family.
Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Susan Capeci gave her a year in jail anyway, writing in her decision that the “order of protection prohibited the defendant from contacting the protected party by electronic or any other means.”
These recent cases aren’t the first time someone has gone to jail for what they posted on social media — and they won’t be the last. Back in 2013, Business Insider reported on seven individuals who had received jail time for what they posted online.
Three Ways to Protect Yourself on Social Media
The most important way to avoid joining the ranks of those who face civil or criminal penalties for what you post online is to remember that the same penalties for wrongdoing apply “in the real world” and online.
For example, “fighting words” such as name calling, libel, or spreading malicious falsehoods can get you in trouble if you do it in your hometown and they can cause problems online, too. Legal agreements — such as the restraining order that got Ms. Gonzalez in trouble or a non-disclosure agreement, or even your employee handbook’s guidelines for behavior on and off the job — apply online, too.
Use common sense to avoid winding up in trouble for something you post online. Common sense in this case begins with the Golden Rule: if you wouldn’t want someone else posting something about you, don’t post it about someone else.
Common sense also dictates that if you don’t want something you say to be tracked back to you, don’t say it online. No matter what alias you use, or how well you think your privacy is protected: if it’s online, it can be found and shared.
Avoid posting anything that is defamatory, discriminatory, malicious, racist, sexist, obscene, abusive or threatening to anyone. It’s especially important to avoid any comment that includes offensive comments or threats toward any specific named individual or company.
Know the rules before you post. It’s easier to break them if you pretend they don’t exist, but doing so opens you up for litigation, and backlash in an arena where news travels fast. Here’s a glossary of the terms that are showing up in more and more lawsuits — knowing the terminology is a first step in understanding the rules.
Given that litigation about online reviews, social media posts, and copyright or plagiarism issues relating to social media are exploding in courts around the country, judges are beginning to take a dim view of the common “I didn’t know it was wrong” defense.
Want to keep up with the latest in social media law? Here are three great sources for news and information you can use.
Don’t post content you don’t have the right to post, such as images or text that infringe on the intellectual property or privacy of others, or advocates illegal activity of any kind. When it comes to the privacy of others, make sure you understand both state and federal rules about social media privacy. A number of states have passed state laws about online privacy — so think before you post that photo you took without asking for permission, or sharing information about anyone that they might consider confidential.
Cite your source, and clearly attribute ownership when you share other people’s content. Share short phrases and quotes, with a link back to the original source, rather than copying and pasting whole articles or paragraphs.
Infringing on intellectual property can snowball. Once you post something, others will share it from your post – and you don’t want to get stuck with a bad outcome. Be as specific and clear as possible about the original owner when you share it.