When people take to Facebook or other social media outlets to post about neighborhood crime, whether suspected or confirmed, it may seem fairly harmless. In fact, most people post this type of thing with the good intent of warning others who might be affected. However, this tactic, often known as “online naming and shaming” could get you into legal trouble because you are subjecting the named person to embarrassment, harassment, and/or public condemnation.
Many online community pages are popular sites for posting photos or videos of alleged criminals in action, but publicly accusing someone of a crime could be problematic. Whether it’s an alleged mail thief or something worse, calling people out online for crimes is a form of digital vigilantism that could result in the poster being charged with stalking, harassment, and/or defamation.
If there is no actual proof of a crime or if the accused person has been misidentified, the online poster is indeed breaking defamation and harassment laws.
Naming and shaming is most commonly seen on social media and other sites such as:
- Yelp and other review sites
However, keep in mind that social media sites aren’t the only places used for naming and shaming. Even accusing someone of a crime on a personal blog page could result in legal recourse.
What Is Defamation?
Defamation is the act of making a false statement about another person or entity that can be proven damaging to that person or entity’s reputation. You may also hear it referred to as “libel”, which is the term for written defamation.
Though the internet allows us to use our right to free speech, this freedom has limits. In fact, our right to free speech ends when we cause damage to someone else’s reputation or publicly harass them.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware that free speech has these limits. Or if they are aware, it doesn’t stop them from naming and shaming others online, as can be seen almost daily on nearly any social media platform.
How Someone Can Prove Defamation
Every state has its own defamation laws, but the basics are the same throughout the U.S. Someone can sue for online defamation if the following four things can be proven:
- Someone made a false statement of fact
- They published or sent that false statement of fact to a third party
- The statement harmed the plaintiff’s reputation
- The defendant was negligent (careless) about whether the statement they made was true or false.
Though online defamation can be difficult to prove in some instances, that doesn’t stop people from trying to sue for this illegal act. If you don’t want to be drawn into a potentially costly legal battle involving online defamation, the best course of action is to refrain from publicly naming and shaming others online.
If you suspect someone of committing a crime in your neighborhood or immediate area, it’s best to report it to police and let them handle the problem. This will keep you out of potential legal trouble.