Personal expression can lead to trouble

For the London Free Press – April 14, 2008

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Facebook, blogs and other social media have made everyone a publisher. Anyone can post their thoughts for the world to see.

But a recent criminal prosecution over comments made on Facebook is a reminder that if one is not careful, that personal expression could result in criminal or civil liability.

On Facebook and other sites that link “friends” together, people often forget that — depending on your privacy settings — your information may be seen by more than just your network of friends. Complete strangers might be able to read messages you believe to be personal.

Within many communities, online or offline, there can be a tendency to embellish information people post about themselves. Some may adjust their age, while others may exaggerate their accomplishments or travels. There are also those who may overstate their emotions or use posts to vent about things that have upset them throughout the day. If you take your venting too far, it could get you into trouble.

In a recent Ontario case, a York Region man was charged with two counts of threatening to cause death because of postings he had made on Facebook. The Children’s Aid Society had removed the man’s son from the custody of the man and his wife due to concerns they would not be able to properly care for the child.

In a series of messages posted online between September and November 2007, the man made statements that were considered threatening by both CAS staff and the police. A CAS employee discovered the messages when she happened to search Facebook for references to her employer.

The trial judge determined the man did not intend to carry out his threatened action and therefore he was found not guilty of the offence. However, the judge also acknowledged that hospital staff, CAS staff and police had acted reasonably in treating the matter in a necessary and appropriate manner.

While most people would not go so far as to post threatening comments, we should remember to temper our thoughts when publishing them in any online forum. Venting is fine, but don’t cross the line into territory that could be considered threatening or defamatory. Doing so can open one up to criminal or civil liability. And that comment that seemed like a good idea at the time may be just embarrassing later.

One reason it is so easy to cross the line is the speed at which we can post information. We can publish our thoughts for the world to see within minutes or seconds. Unlike mailing a letter to the editor, that process does not give us the time to reflect and consider whether it really is a good idea to say something.

So next time you feel the need to vent or complain online, write it, but hold off actually publishing it for a while. Perhaps the exercise of just writing it will give you enough satisfaction. And the wisdom gained over a night’s sleep might result in changing your mind about how you word it, or indeed if you want to publish it at all.

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