Parents may be held liable for children’s Facebook posts – court

Reuters / Jorge SilvaRT

The parents of two children who posted defamatory comments about a fellow student in a fake Facebook account are heading to court, which will determine whether parents should be liable for their children’s internet activity.

The parents of seventh-grade students Dustin Athearn and Melissa Snodgrass learned this the hard way after their children created a fake Facebook page under the name of fellow student Alexandria (Alex) Boston. Dustin and Melissa, with the help of a “Fat Face” app, distorted Alex’s features, while also making offensive comments about the girl.  

According to the court document, “After Dustin created the account, both Dustin and Melissa added information to the unauthorized profile, which indicated inter alia, racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. Dustin and Melissa also caused the persona to issue invitations to become ‘Friends’ to many of Alex’s classmates, teachers, and extended family members,” wrote the Georgia Court of Appeals in its opinion.

The court described the content on the false Facebook page as “graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive.”

Upon discovering the Facebook page set up in their daughter’s name, Alex’s parents, Amy and Christopher Boston, met with the school’s principal to discuss the matter. Dustin and Melissa confessed to their actions and signed a statement to that effect, as well as receiving a two-day suspension from school.

Although the parents of the students were notified in writing as to their children’s actions, the fake Facebook page, purporting to be Alex Boston, remained visible for another 11 months until Facebook finally deactivated the account. In that period of time, “the fake persona continued to extend or accept requests to become Facebook friends with additional users and that other users viewed and posted on the unauthorized page…,” according to the court’s opinion.

Reuters / Eric Thayer

Reuters / Eric Thayer

Presiding Judge John J. Ellington ruled that the parents may be found legally liable for not having their son remove the fake Facebook profile that made potentially libelous statements against the classmate.

“Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional 11 months, we conclude that a jury could find that the [parents’] negligence proximately caused some part of the injury [the girl] sustained from [the boy’s] actions (and inactions),” wrote Judge Ellington in the opinion.

Natalie Woodward, the attorney who represented Alex Boston, said she believed the appellate court’s decision could set a new precedent.

The ruling indicates that in “certain circumstances, when what is being said about a child is untrue and once the parents know about it, then liability is triggered,” she told Law Blog.

The case now heads back to the lower court for trial.

Last year, two Florida girls were accused of cyberbullying Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old classmate, who eventually committed suicide by jumping to her death from a concrete factory.

Sedwick’s mother said that over a dozen girls had continued to harass her daughter over the internet, even after the girl had changed schools, the Daily News reported.

However, charges of aggravated stalking against Katelyn Roman, 13, and Guadalupe Shaw, 14, were eventually dropped.

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