Costly commentary on social media

By JACK RYAN,

Good for Pike County Circuit Judge David Strong, who recently held a Summit woman accountable for her slanderous comments on Facebook about a locally owned business.

Strong issued a judgment against Amber Griffin, ordering her to pay more than $134,000 in damages and attorney fees to the woman who owns Susan’s Shoppe.

The owner, Susan Mathes May, has stores in Brookhaven and Hattiesburg that sell and rent formal gowns for proms and other events. May sued Griffin for her statements in 2017, when Griffin, on her own Facebook page, said that if you purchase from May’s business, “you are supporting child molesters.”

Before the advent of social media platforms like Facebook gave everyone a microphone for their opinions, this is exactly the kind of slur that would have been spoken privately — if at all — instead of being available for any Facebook user.

“Traditional media” like a newspaper, radio station or TV station that published such an allegation without evidence would be an automatic candidate for a lawsuit. People may not realize this, but it is an intentional quirk of federal law that social media companies are not liable for the things their customers put online.

The biggest complaint about platforms like Facebook is the lack of restraint by some of its users. They feel perfectly comfortable insulting others, and this has wound up coarsening public debate instead of making it healthier. Occasionally, as in the Susan’s Shoppe case, the insults must be resolved in court.

This lawsuit also shows the legal difference between complaining about a business and accusing its owner of criminal behavior.

“The service was lousy,” “the cashier was rude” or “the manager refused to help me” would be constitutionally protected opinions about someone’s experience with a business. But alleging immoral and criminal activity without any evidence is indefensible. Thus the judge’s award of $75,000 in actual damages, $50,000 for emotional distress and the remainder for punitive damages and legal fees.

Until the law changes, though, it is up to people who believe they have been wronged, such as the Susan’s Shoppe owner, to defend their reputation. May did the right thing to protect her business, even though it cost money to hire a lawyer and there’s no way to know whether she actually will receive any of the judgment.

Facebook and its peers are starting to clamp down on some prominent falsehoods. But social media companies won’t truly clean up their act until the law holds both the companies and their customers liable for what goes online.

Opponents of this say it would restrict free speech. That is not true, because there have always been restrictions on free speech. You can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium as a prank, for example.

Applying greater free speech restrictions to social media will correct an imbalance and make these companies play by the same rules of opinion and commentary as everyone else.