Potentially defamatory messages posted on social media website Facebook could be costly for one woman, who is being sued by an entire family for a series of posts on her page back in 2016. The case against Janelle Burke could set a new standard for local users of Facebook and other social media websites.
No legislation governs the use of social media locally and Justice Frank Seepersad’s ruling next Monday can create a precedent for other, similar cases where libellous statements are posted on social media accounts.
It will also serve as a warning to social media users to be wary of what they post, as defamatory statements can spread swiftly, increasing the likelihood of false information and damaging the integrity of an innocent person.
In their lawsuit, the family who testified at the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain yesterday, claims Burke published five libellous statements on Facebook that resulted in their suffering “shame and embarrassment”, since those statements were false and may have been seen by thousands.
The family said the posts were intended to disparage them in their work, social, community and family lives.
Two of the family members are minors.
In her posts, Burke allegedly accused the family of engaging in incest. Her posts further alleged that the father was a rapist who had sex with his stepson and daughter. Another post accused the seven-year-old of being involved in prostitution at school. The posts also claimed the mother of the family had sex with other men and women.
The family’s telephone numbers and their photographs were also shared. The posts even resulted in the Child Protection Unit (CPU) interviewing the family.
The police, the mother testified, cleared her and her husband of any wrongdoing and told them they were no longer under investigation. The family also denied any of the other activities ever took place.
The mother testified that they were once friends with the woman, but after a dispute, she began insulting them. Police reports were made, but the insults continued, the mother said. She said her family first became aware of the posts on Burke’s Facebook page in February 2016. Screenshots of the posts were printed and were admitted into evidence at the trial yesterday.
Burke was given an opportunity to defend herself at the trial but opted not to. She also did not file a witness statement, in defiance of a previous court order. Instead, her attorney Adrian Thompson filed a defence statement in which Burke admitted the messages were posted on her Facebook page, but said she did not post them.
She said they could have been put there by anyone who had access to her account.
Burke said as soon as she was told of the posts on her page, she immediately deleted them and closed her Facebook account. At the end of the evidence, Justice Seepersad said this case was unique and “having regard to the importance of the issue”, he intends to deliver a written ruling. Attorney Glen Bhagwansingh represents the family.