Georgia Court Rules Parents Can Be Liable For Libelous Facebook Posts Of Their Child

If you have read my blog for any time at all (thank you!) then you know one my major concerns is how the use of social media effects teachers, public employees, and even employers.  While it shouldn’t come as any surprise that an individual’s off-the-clock social media use can effect their employment, a recent appellate decision from Georgia ruled on a novel question: can parents be liable when their child makes a fake Facebook profile of another child and then posts defamatory and libelous comments there.  See Boston v. Athearn, A14A0971 (Ga. App. Oct. 10, 2014) (thanks to Legal Clips for pointing out this case).  While the ultimate ruling was that the parents could be held liable, the specific facts are important.  Hit the jump for more…The situation started when the child and his friend decided to make a fake Facebook profile of another student at their school.  The two used a computer owned by the parents of the first child and internet provided by the same in order to setup the profile.  The profile was populated with racist statements, intimated that the victim was homosexual, and also implied that the 13-year old was abusing drugs.  The two students sent friend requests to students and teachers at the school as well as extended relatives of the victim and then posted racist and sexually explicit comments on the pages of individuals who accepted the requests.

After the victim’s parents were notified of the fake profile, they approached their child’s school to try and remedy the situation.  The victim believed she knew the identities of the creators of the page based off of the content that had been posted (including a picture taken by one of the two children) and, when administrators interviewed the two students, they immediately confessed.  The district placed both students on in-school suspension and notified their parents.  The parent’s of the first child also forbade him from seeing friends for a week.  However, the profile continued to be accessible, and even sent and received friend requests, for almost 11 months after the parents were notified, at which point Facebook officials deactivated the account.

The victim’s parents brought suit against the first child and his parents for libel and defamation.  The trial court dismissed all claims against the parents and the victim’s parents appealed.  On appeal, the court was clear to note that the child’s parents could not be liable merely for the original posting, even though it was done on their computer using their internet, because they had no reason to anticipate that conduct.  However, the parents duty to supervise their child did not end with the original posting.  As long as the information was still available online it could continue to damage the victim, therefore the parents did have a duty to prevent any further harm by properly supervising their child’s internet use and requiring he take the profile down.  Since the parents failed to have the profile removed in the 11 months before it was removed by Facebook, they could be held liable for negligently supervising their child.  The appellate court then sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

This case has some important takeaway information for parents.  First and foremost, you should try to be cognizant of how your children are using the technology you provide.  Then, if you discover potentially harmful material, it is your duty to have it removed or you could face legal liability.  While courts generally are reticent to hold parents responsible for the actions of a child, when parental inaction causes additional harm the Boston case demonstrates how they can still find liability.


Filed under Social Media

3 responses to “Georgia Court Rules Parents Can Be Liable For Libelous Facebook Posts Of Their Child

  1. jacquieshipma

    How would this play out in Missouri, given the $2000 limit on a parent’s responsibilty for intentional damages caused by their minor children?

    • I do not believe that Missouri’s restriction on parental liability (Mo. Rev. Stat. 537.045) would apply in situations like this because the parents were not being held liable derivatively for their child’s libel but rather directly for their own negligent failure to supervise. While the child was liable as soon as the defamatory content was posted, the parents only became liable after they were notified of the content and took no action on it. There isn’t much case law on this provision but a case I covered last year on parental liability to a teacher’s aide does include a discussion of circumstances where a parent will be held independently liable for their child’s actions. The circumstances where a court would find such liability are quite narrow but I would think if this case had been brought in Missouri a court could see the parents’ actions as ratifying the child’s behavior because they failed to take action to prevent a known harm.

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