Parents Can Be Liable for Kids' Facebook Bullying
The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that parents can be held responsible for what their kids post on Facebook.
Alexandria ("Alex") Boston, through her parents, sued Dustin Athearn, a seventh-grade classmate, and his parents over posts Dustin made on Facebook.
Dustin, posing as Alex, created a Facebook account and profile and posted statements and photographs that the Bostons alleged were libelous under Georgia law, which defines libel as:
... a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing [the person] to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.
In 2011, Dustin, who was 13 at the time, and his friend Melissa decided to "have some fun at a classmate's expense" by creating a fake Facebook page for that person. They selected Alex as their target.
Melissa, posing as Alex, created a Yahoo email account and used that to create the fake Facebook page, then gave the account information to Dustin.
For the profile photo, Dustin used a photo he had taken of Alex at school, modifying it with a "Fat Face" app.
Dustin and Melissa both added information to the phony profile, suggesting that Alex was a racist and a homosexual. They also invited Alex's classmates, teachers, and relatives to "friend" the fake profile. Within a few days, the account had more than 70 "friends."
Using the fake "Alex" persona, Dustin and Melissa both added additional information to the Facebook page and posted status updates and comments on other pages. As the court noted,
Some of these postings were graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive and some falsely stated that Alex was on a medication regimen for mental health disorders and that she took illegal drugs.
Alex suspected that Dustin was behind the fake posts, because she recognized the photo he had taken of her. Her parents asked Alex's school principal for help. The principal called Dustin and Melissa to her office. They admitted their involvement and signed a written statement to that effect. The two of them were suspended from school for two days for harassing Alex.
The principal also called Dustin's and Melissa's parents and notified them in writing about the reason for the suspension.
Dustin's mother disciplined him by forbidding him to see his friends after school for one week.
However, the phony profile remained on Facebook for 11 months – until after the Bostons filed suit.
In addition to suing for libel, the Bostons also alleged that Dustin's actions constituted the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Athearns moved for summary judgment – i.e., they sought a court order that even if what the Bostons said was true, it didn't give rise to legal liability. A trial court granted this motion and the Bostons appealed.
The Bostons contended that the case turned on whether the Athearns breached a duty to supervise Dustin's use of his computer and Internet account. They also claimed that it was an issue of fact whether the Athearns, as property owners, breached a duty to remove defamatory content existing on their property.
When are parents liable for the acts of a child?
The court noted that under Georgia law, liability for the tort of a minor child is not imputed to the parents simply because of the parent-child relationship. However, parents may be held liable for their own negligence in failing to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others.
The court ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude that, after learning what Dustin had done, the Athearns failed to exercise due care in supervising and controlling his online activity.
The court found:
During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information or whether the distribution was ongoing. They did not tell Dustin to delete the page. Furthermore, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information Dustin was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.
In fact, the court noted that during the months after Dustin's suspension the fake page continued to submit and accept "friend" requests, and that other users continued to view and post on the page.
For these reasons, the court reversed the summary judgment for the Athearns. This means that the case may now proceed to trial, unless the parties settle.
Although this decision is under Georgia law, many other states have similar laws under which parents can be held liable for their children's activities.
Parents may thus want to make a greater effort to police their children's online lives – especially when they've been accused of bullying or other abuses.
A parent facing a suit based on a child's online bullying may want to consult a defamation defense attorney.