Assume the Whole World Will See: Defamation on Facebook

By Charles Thompson

The social media rant. You’ve seen them on your timeline, and maybe you’ve even published one yourself. But what you may consider to be “just venting” could have serious repercussions.

“In April 2016, the British Columbia Supreme Court handed down a noteworthy ruling on a case involving defamation on Facebook,” says Charles Thompson with Burchell MacDougall’s Truro office.

The case involved Abbotsford, BC neighbours, plaintiff Mr. Pritchard and defendant Ms. Van Nes. The two had been neighbours since 2008, but in 2011 the situation became less than neighbourly.

Pritchard made a number of complaints about a noisy water feature on Van Nes’ property, late night parties and trespassing, her dog defecating on his property, Van Nes blocking his driveway and other nuisance charges.

These issues lead to the deterioration of the neighbours’ relationship, and, ultimately, to Van Nes writing an inflammatory Facebook post.

“She wrote that Pritchard was spying on her family to the point of obsession,” Charles explains, “Including videotaping the young daughters of friends staying with her. She basically accused him of being a pedophile, but without actually using the word.”

Friends commented and shared the post, and one emailed the contents of the post to the Pritchard’s employer, the principal at the school where he is a music teacher.

“Obviously, that sort of accusation can cause extreme harm to anyone, but especially a teacher,” Charles goes on, “Her accusations were untrue, and saying or writing something that diminishes someone’s reputation and is not true is the definition of defamation.”

By the time police became involved, Van Nes had deleted her post. But it was public for 28 hours, shared, commented on, and, because her account wasn’t protected by privacy settings, potentially seen by thousands. Pritchard sued Van Nes for the various property disputes – and for defamation.

“When deciding the case, the judge looked at three factors,” Charles continues, “Van Nes’ liability for her own posts, her liability for the sharing of and commenting on those posts, and her liability for the subsequent defamation of Pritchard by her friends.”

Usually someone is not liable if defamatory information is repeated by a third party, but the court recognized that the purpose of Facebook is to share and comment. Van Nes posted on a platform designed for engagement and the judge decided that she should have anticipated the reaction.

“It stretches the traditional view of defamation, but judge determined that, by responding and engaging, she adopted the comments as her own. She knew they were posted and she could have deleted them. She knew people would comment and she encouraged it.”

While Van Nes considered it “just venting”, her actions resulted in a judgement for Pritchard. He received $50,000 in damages, plus $15,000 in punitive damages, and legal costs.

“As one of the first Facebook defamation cases, this is a progressive development in law,” Charles concludes, “And it’s an eye-opener for the public. You can’t say anything you want on social media; you’re responsible for your words and their consequences. Whatever you post on Facebook, assume the whole world will read it.”

This article is for information only and is not intended to be legal advice. If you have any questions or would like further information, you should consult a lawyer.