AMA CHARLES must now raise $94,652 to pay damages and legal costs after she was taken to court by prison officer Heidi Joseph. Charles posted defamatory statements about the officer on Facebook, and it’s likely that she thought she was just commenting on “her” page. But on Facebook, unless very strict privacy settings are turned on, posts are viewable by a surprisingly wide cross section of users. Beyond that, those who will screen-capture comments and share them even more widely.
Nothing is truly private online anymore. In her defence, Charles admitted to making the original, contentious post, but denied sharing it to the Prison Service Facebook page.
In her ruling, Justice Margaret Mohammed warned of the power of social media and the damage it can do to the reputations of individuals. Mohammed was particularly concerned about the allegations raised by Charles in her post, which “called into question the fitness of the claimant as a parent in a society where the acts of parents with their children are under immense scrutiny both by private citizens and state agencies.”
It’s not the first time that internet-enabled character attacks have drawn the attention of the court and proved costly for defendants. In 2015, Therese Ho won a judgment of $150,000 against her ex, cricketer Lendl Simmons, who shared compromising photos of her online. Ho described the judgment as a small comfort, explaining that “there’s nothing at this point in time that can turn back the hands of the clock.”
And that’s the cruellest reality of these attacks, the way they spread and linger on the internet, stains that, like Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hands, can never be washed out. “What need we fear who knows it,” Shakespeare’s haunted character whispers, “when none can call our power to account?”
But an accounting has come, at least locally, with Justice Frank Seepersad’s ruling on case claim CV 2016-02974, a definitive judgment delivered on February 5 this year. The 20-page ruling formally ended the case against the pseudonymous Jenelle Burke who defamed her neighbours extensively on social media and ended up liable for damages and costs.
But Seepersad’s ruling was also written for reference, clearly outlining the guidelines he used in identifying the defamation. Seepersad’s legal statement ends any illusion that idle chatter and ill-considered status posts on social media enjoy the same limited protections and circulation as water-cooler mauvais langue and rumshop chatter.
The pervasive notion that virtual conversations and status posts can somehow be controlled by their authors have now been conclusively dashed, and anyone who thinks that the rules of common law and common sense don’t apply online should take heed.