No hiding place: Facebook is not immune to libel laws, say lawyers *Image created by Gary Foster Skelton
No hiding place: Facebook is not immune to libel laws, say lawyers *Image created by Gary Foster Skelton

In the Internet age, freedom of expression can sometimes walk a tightrope between opinion and a costly lawsuit.

You may feel safe at home typing a remark on a social networking site, but if this is derogatory you could be sued for defamation of character. Lawyers are warning social media users to beware the pitfalls of what they post as another high profile libel case has emerged in Bermuda. Amanda Dale reports.

Facebook is a free-for-all forum in which you can say what you like, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

This week it was reported that Deputy Premier Michael Dunkley is suing Opposition Leader Marc Bean over comments made on Facebook.

The remarks were reportedly made on the ‘Bermuda Election 2012’ discussion group page on September 30, after Mr Dunkley tabled a motion in the House of Assembly calling for random drug testing of MPs.

Mr Dunkley has initiated legal action for defamation through lawyers at Mello Jones & Martin.

He told the Sun yesterday: “I will make no further comment on this matter as it is with the courts at this time.”

Marc Daniels of Charter Chambers, acting for Mr Bean, said: “We intend to file a memorandum of appearance in short order, to come on the record and officially start the process in court.

“At this stage it would not be professional of me to comment, even on matters generally relating to libel and politicians, and comments on Facebook.”

There are other local examples of Facebook proving to be a treacherous arena for criticism.

In 2010, lawyer Charles Richardson was charged with criminal libel for making remarks about Detective Inspector Robert Cardwell on Facebook.

Mr Cardwell said Mr Richardson intended to damage his reputation with his “irresponsible” remarks.

The criminal case was however dropped in 2011 after Puisne Judge Ian Kawaley said such a prosecution would contravene Mr Richardson’s right to freedom of expression. 

But he concluded the comments were “unfair” and contained “innuendo”.

In 2009 another lawyer faced repercussions after she posted comments on Facebook during a murder trial.

Takiyah Burgess, a prosecutor, was fined $1,000 and disciplined by the Bar Council after she wrote she was “listening to a pack of lies” as a defendant gave evidence.

The judge was forced to stop the trial and discharge the jury out of fear it could be prejudiced. 

When it comes to expressing your opinion, you need to be mindful of whether it is based on fact and whether or not you could defend this in court, say lawyers.

On an island as small as Bermuda — where gossip is rife — reputations can be easily damaged. 

Tim Marshall, litigation director for Marshall Diel & Myers Ltd, said: ‘The rule of thumb is; before you say anything about anybody you know is derogatory, you should ensure what you’re saying is absolutely true.

“Some people think that just because they’re on a computer having a chat in their living room, it’s private — but it’s not.

“As soon as you get carried away in a conversation and this mentions an individual in a negative way, that affects their reputation, then you’re putting yourself at risk.

“Just because you are using social media doesn’t mean you can ignore defamation laws,” he said.

“It’s also a good idea not to repeat information or repost anything that puts someone in a derogatory light.”

If someone posts something negative about someone on your page, you should also delete it, advised Mr Marshall.

When it comes to opinion, you also need to be on your guard.

“If you’re expressing your opinion on matters that are public issues or politics, generally you are fine,” said Mr Marshall.

“But if you are talking about the conduct of a particular person, and their reputation could be affected, then you’re in a danger zone.”

When it comes to slander and gossip, he also advises to steer clear of negative comment.

“Often times you don’t know whether what is being said has any validity or substance behind it,
so if you see the conversation gravitating towards that, you should extricate yourself as quickly as you can.

“Defamation can affect a person in the most profound ways, particularly in a small community.”