“Can You Tweet That? Social Media and the Law” #sxsw #smlaw

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Be careful what you Tweet, tumble and pin — you could end up in legal trouble.

Legally, you have to treat a tweet and a Facebook post as you would any published piece, according to Dara Quackenbush, public relations professor at Texas State University, and a strategic communications adviser.

Laws that govern speech have not been updated as new communications technologies arose, said Quackenbush at SXSW on a cold and rainy Saturday morning in Austin.

Laws do not keep up with technology, Quackenbush said at SXSW on Saturday morning. More issues will continue to arise all of the time (think of Rush Limbaugh or last year’s monkey photography case).

When it comes to ownership of content, rules for social media are about terms of service for each social media site — just as copyright ownership comes down to contractual terms for most authors and publishers. Ownership of that content also depends on the agreement between the employee who Tweets and tumbles and pins, and the publisher she works for.

You do own the content of material you post on Facebook, but Facebook may use your text or image for its own promotional purposes. Twitter and Pinterest have their own sets of rules and conditions.

Hate speech is out of bounds across the board: lewd or obscene, profane, libelous, and insulting comments or statements are illegal. But the difference between criticism and insult can be difficult to assess.

Terms of service also determine the extent of freedom of speech per site. Agreeing to Facebook’s terms also indicates that “you will not post content that is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”

In the end, suing is a matter of paperwork, albeit an expensive one, Quackenbush pointed out. And rulings come down in the end to what a judge decides. But there is a burden of proof that extends to five tests: of defamation, publication, identification, negligence, and damages. Not to mention that suing is expensive.

Defending against a lawsuit for comment you’ve posted online in social networks comes down to proving the veracity of a statement, privilege or position of power of the individual (or organization) responsible, and fair comment or criticism.

Probably the best defense is erring on the side of caution when posting content on social networks and not getting sued in the first place.

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Barbara Galletly

About Barbara Galletly

Barbara Galletly is pursuing a master’s degree in information studies at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information. She is studying archives, libraries, and other forms of collections. Previously, she was an associate agent and associate director of foreign rights at New York literary agency Georges Borchardt, Inc., until she left New York to explore the wider world of books. She also writes, usually about books, for This Recording. Follow her at her website and on Twitter.

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