Legal Hotline: Social media defamation

  • Apr 28, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  Our newspaper has a number of social media accounts, including Twitter and Facebook pages.  Our reporters can post to these websites, and the content is typically self-edited prior to publication.  Can the newspaper be liable for defamatory “tweets” and other content posted to social media websites?

 A:  Yes. The general rules of defamation apply, and defamation lawsuits have been filed as a result of comments made on Twitter and other forms of social media.   Newspapers are responsible for online content created by newspaper employees or those acting on behalf of the newspaper. 

 Libel occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published that tends to harm a person's reputation or expose him or her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.  Publishing a libelous comment occurs when a defamatory statement is communicated to a third party.  Libel can take many forms, including articles, headlines, advertising, letters to the editor, sports columns, drawings, opinions, outlines, and photographs.  Internet postings can communicate defamatory comments to third parties, and accordingly, newspapers can be held liable for defamatory remarks made online by newspaper employees or those acting on behalf of the newspaper.  Social media content should be carefully reviewed for defamation prior to publication.  Further, newspaper employees should be made aware of the basic rules of defamation and the potential for liability resulting from defamatory content posted on social media websites.

It is important to note that the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S. § 230 offers significant protection for newspapers from liability resulting from defamatory content posted online by third parties, such as readers’ comments following online news articles.  Specifically, section 230 of the Act says: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." The law protects “interactive computer services,” which include newspapers that operate websites. This provision has been broadly interpreted by the courts and offers significant protection against liability for defamatory comments posted online by third parties. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not offer protection for content created or developed by newspaper staff or anyone acting on behalf of the newspaper. 

Newspapers can screen reader-submitted content, and PNA advises newspapers to monitor reader-submitted content, so that defamatory and offensive content can be removed.  The law does not require newspapers to monitor user comments, but if newspapers choose to do so, they should either remove objectionable content completely or publish it in an unedited form, since newspapers risk losing protection of the Communications Decency Act if they edit third party content posted on their websites. 

As always, this is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your newspaper’s private attorney or call PNA’s Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions or to schedule a training session on defamation.


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