PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Wednesday February 7, 2018 – A woman in Trinidad and Tobago who posted defamatory statements about a family of four on Facebook has been ordered by a High Court judge to pay for her comments.
Justice Frank Seepersad handed down that ruling on Monday, in a lawsuit brought by the family against Jenelle Burke. The damages and costs which she must pay will be determined at a later date.
Among the posts on Burke’s Facebook page was that the family – a mother, father, son and daughter – was engaged in incest, and that the father was a rapist who had sexual relations with his stepson and under aged daughter whom Burke claimed was involved in prostitution at her school. Her posts had prompted officers from the Child Protection Unit to investigate the allegations, but the mother testified in court that the claims were eventually found to be untrue. Burke, who was said to be once a friend of the family before they had a falling out, had also posted photographs and telephone numbers of the family members.
The woman had claimed, in her defence, that she was not the one who posted the messages on her Facebook page, and that as soon as she saw the posts she deleted them.
But Justice Seepersad described Burke’s Facebooks posts as reckless and scandalous.
“It is difficult to fathom how any right thinking member of society would contemplate to publish words such as those posted on the defendant’s Facebook account. Sadly, however, far too often, social media is used as a forum to engage in this type of irresponsible and cruel discourse.
“This state of affairs cannot continue unabated and the Court therefore has elected to mould and apply the common law in a manner which gives some degree of protection to citizens. There is entrenched in local parlance the phrase, ‘You will pay for your mouth’. Given the technological revolution which now characterizes modern life, this traditional phrase has to be subject to an update and all social media account holders need to understand that they may now have to ‘pay for their posts’, if it is established that their posts are defamatory,” the judge said.
He further contended that social media posts can cause significant damage, since the material creates a perpetual imprint in cyberspace and there is no deletion or rectification that can be effected with respect to information uploaded to the World Wide Web.
“The reach and permanency of social media is such that extreme caution has to be exercised by its users. The law needs to be pellucid, so that all concerned must understand that social media use has to be engaged in a responsible way. Anonymity cannot obviate the need to be respectful of people’s rights and users cannot recklessly impugn a person’s character or reputation. Words in any form or on any forum matter, and must be used carefully and not impulsively,” Seepersad cautioned.
“A word of caution is also extended to those who knowingly republish or share posts containing defamatory content. There must be some measure of restraint, if only to reconsider the accuracy or plausibility of truth in a post before its dissemination which is especially true of sensational and outrageous posts which can possibly cause irreparable harm,” he added.
Seepersad also suggested that the rules, regulations, rights, and responsibilities which govern traditional media must be applied to social media users.
“Social media ought not to be viewed as an unregulated media forum and anyone who elects to express views or opinions on such a forum stands in the shoes of a journalist and must be subjected to the standards of responsible journalism which govern traditional media,” the judge said.