University's Libel Suit Highlights Growing Online Dilemma

Blogs, Comment Postings Can Be Problematic

A libel lawsuit filed by Butler University highlights the dangers of certain types of online postings.

The university is suing an anonymous blogger for comments posted last year on a blog that the school contends includes defamatory statements about two high-level administrators.

The blog has since been removed. University officials said they strongly support freedom of speech and academic freedom, "but we cannot tolerate the harassment, intimidation and defamation in which the defendant engaged."

6News was unable to reach the blogger for comment.

Popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are pretty much blank canvasses for people to express thoughts.

"It's my page. I'm going to put whatever I want on it, and if you don't like it, don't read it," said Boris Golubov, a Facebook user.

"Anonymous" comments can easily be traced, and there's a movement aimed at forcing Internet providers to release the names of posters in some libel cases.

Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis law professor Andy Klein said everyone should use words carefully in any online venue.

"If the statement is harmful to someone's reputation, there is the potential for defamation liability," Klein told 6News' Ericka Flye.

Klein stressed that calling someone a bad name isn't defamation, but that a comment steps into a danger zone when it is false but could be viewed by a reasonable person as an assertion of fact.

Klein's recent classroom discussions center around libel scenarios on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs. While those sites may seem to some like private places to post harmful statements, they aren't private at all.

"Defamation requires only that at least one person, other than the person you're speaking about, has seen or heard the statement," Klein said.

Some contend that the threat of lawsuits has the effect of chilling free speech.

"If I say something negative, I don't include anyone's name," said Caitlyn Cummings.

The best way to avoid defamation may be to simply take the high road, living by the old adage, "if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all."