While most would think twice before taking out an ad in the local paper listing accusations against an alleged offender, what about a post on the Internet? Perhaps because it is free, ubiquitous, and sometimes anonymous, social media gives users a false sense of security that they have carte blanch to say what they want without any repercussions. But a recent case out of Texas federal court reminds us that posting on Facebook can lead to trouble, particularly if the topic involves allegations of child sexual abuse. The case, Hawbecker v. Hall, explores defamation in the age of social media and how allegations of child sexual abuse can lead to big consequences when they are highlighted online.1
Facebook and Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse
The plaintiff in the case—a karate teacher—claimed that the defendant made knowingly false statements on Facebook about him sexually abusing children and possessing sexually explicit photos of children. The poster had created a Facebook group titled “Please help me stop a child molester.” The posts included allegations that the karate teacher sexually molested the poster’s daughter, and that active investigations into his alleged misconduct were ongoing. She posted information about the teacher’s job, and the city where he lived. She invited others to join the group and asked its members to spread the word. She also “liked” the teacher’s employer so the employer would receive her group’s posts.
The Facebook group had its desired effect. The man’s life was essentially wrecked. He was demoted from his job teaching karate and eventually fired. His job prospects were bleak because the Facebook group popped up when prospective employers did searches. He was told on at least one occasion that he was not hired because of the information on Facebook about him. He lost his reputation, relationships, livelihood, and suffered great emotional harm from the posts.
The man brought suit against the Facebook poster for defamation, and a Texas federal district court granted summary judgment in his favor. The poster could not produce any evidence that she had not defamed the man with her posts. The Court explained as follows:
Bottom line, [the poster] states she believes her daughter’s statement (although the Court is unsure which version Defendant is referring to as numerous versions have been recounted). Notwithstanding [the poster’s] belief that [Plaintiff] behaved inappropriately in some manner, [the poster] only relies upon hearsay, speculation, conclusory remarks and subjective belief. She offers no competent summary judgment evidence to refute Plaintiff's evidence that Defendant (1) published a statement; (2) that was defamatory concerning the Plaintiff; (3) with negligence regarding the truth of the statement.2
The Court held that the statements constituted defamation per se, meaning that they were harmful just by their very nature. The Court then held a bench trial on the extent of the damages.
Damages for Defamation Involving Child Sexual Abuse Allegations Can Be Steep
The Court’s latest order outlined the appropriate remedy for the defamation in this case. Ultimately, the Court concluded that the accused was “entitled to both special/economic damages in lost wages and lost future earnings, as well as general/noneconomic damages for mental anguish and loss of reputation.” First, the Court explained that the accused had demonstrated that because of the Facebook posts, he had been demoted and lost income he would have otherwise had. In addition, he was later fired and had difficulty finding gainful employment because of the posts. So the Court awarded damages for lost income and future wages.
Next, the Court discussed how the Facebook posts had caused other harm. Because the statements at issue constituted defamation per se, the Court presumed loss of reputation. The Court also noted how the plaintiff had been unable to continue participating in activities such as working with children, due to the Facebook group. All in all, the Court awarded $250,000 for these damages.
Finally, the Court awarded an additional $100,000 in punitive damages. The Court noted that the poster “knew exactly what she was doing when she made these defamatory statements.” She intended to accuse the plaintiff of sexual abuse of children so he would suffer great harm. She largely succeeded. The Court remarked that falsely accusing someone of sexual abuse of a child on Facebook was indecent and destructive, noting that the comments to the Facebook posts suggested that vigilante justice and calls for violence were the response. Though the plaintiff here did not actually experience physical harm, it was a real possibility, and the poster was held accountable for that: “False and reckless accusations of such severe conduct can not only threaten the livelihood of those accused, but it can often endanger their very lives.”3
Liability for defamation can exist for posting about allegations of child sexual abuse.
With high-profile child sexual abuse cases commonly reported in the media, it can be easy to assume that posting any allegation publicly is fair-game. But this case demonstrates that if such posting is done with negligence regarding the truth of the allegations, someone could be liable for defamation. Here, the poster claimed that she believed her daughter’s allegations that the man had behaved inappropriately toward her. But it was undisputed that she had “no personal knowledge that any improper act occurred,” had “not been able to identify any pictures that allegedly exist of her daughter,” and was “not aware of any evidence that indicates that [the Plaintiff] engaged in any sexual misconduct.”4 While there were other factors in this case that made the poster’s actions and accounts unbelievable to the Court, publication of accusations of child sexual abuse can lead to liability for defamation, particularly where the publisher has no personal knowledge of or actual evidence to support the accusations.
Publicly posting about allegations of child sexual abuse can cause wide-ranging damages.
In this case, defamation involving allegations of child sexual abuse had wide-ranging consequences. The accused suffered loss of relationship. It affected his job situation and his ability to find gainful employment after the fact. This is partially due to the fact that allegations about child sexual abuse are very serious. And when the poster is putting the allegations on Facebook with negligent disregard to whether they are true—for example, as in this case, by apparently relying on someone else’s version of events—damages can be severe.
Posting on social media, as opposed to another method of publication, may exacerbate damages.
As the Court here noted, allegations of sexual misconduct involving children have the potential to upend a person’s life. And when those allegations are posted on the internet in a manner that is visible to others, the defamation is published more widely than it might otherwise be. The fact that the allegations at issue here were published on Facebook only added to the harm that they caused, for which the poster was ultimately liable.
This case is an extreme example of posting about child sexual abuse where truth was not successfully put forth as a defense to the defamation claim. But it serves as a reminder that one should be careful in making public statements about this topic. For organizations or individuals in the position of needing to discuss child sexual abuse allegations in a public forum, consult with counsel before any statements are made.