Parents Liable for Internet Bullying

Print This Page
BullyingThe 13-year-old thought he’d have some fun: anonymous “cyber bullying” of a classmate on Facebook.

Eventually, his parents learned of their son’s action. But they ignored it for months.

And now they face civil liability for not dealing with what their son had maliciously created on the Internet.

Here’s the story. In May, 2011, seventh-grader Dustin decided to have some “fun” with a classmate by creating a fake Facebook page using her name. He enlisted another classmate, Melissa, to help him.

Their target: a seventh-grade girl, Alex.

In a court document, Dustin wrote that he and Melissa decided they hated Alex. “So we made up a username and a password . . . and went home and made the Facebook page.”

What had Alex done wrong? “She followed me around and my friends did not like her and told her to leave me alone.” 

So Alex debuted on Facebook and she didn’t have a clue.

Once the Facebook page was up, Dustin and Melissa found a school picture of Alex, altered it with a “Fat Face” app – which does exactly what you think – and posted it as Alex’s profile picture on Facebook.

They then started posting statements on this phony page, and sent invitations to over 70 other Facebook users to “friend” Alex and add their comments.

Dustin and Melissa also started adding comments which they attributed to Alex. The GA Court of Appeals described them as “racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation . . . . . Some of the postings were graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive and falsely stated that Alex was on a medication regimen for mental health disorder and the she took illegal drugs.”

Enter Alex’s parents, because Alex figured out that Dustin was behind the fake page; she remembered who was there when the altered photo was taken.

Alex and her parents went to the school’s principal, who called Dustin and Melissa to her office, and they admitted what they had done.

The principal put Dustin on “in-school” suspension for two days. His parents’ punishment was even more tepid: they forbade him from seeing friends after school for a week.

But the bogus Facebook page remained on Facebook for another 11 months.

And during that time, Dustin’s parents “made no attempt to view the page or learn about its contents, did not tell Dustin to delete the page, and made no attempt to determine whether the offensive information could be corrected, deleted or retracted.” [Text from the Court of Appeals’ decision.]

So Alex and her parents sued Dustin, his parents and other defendants.  The grounds: the Facebook account, the fake Alex profile, the altered photo, and the posted comments constituted libel under Georgia law.

What libel could Dustin’s parents be liable for? Not the original posting. But they arguably had a duty to supervise Dustin’s use of the computer and Internet account, and they also had a duty to remove the defamatory contents. The Court again:

“[Dustin’s parents] did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information, or whether the distribution was ongoing.  They did not tell Dustin to delete the page. Furthermore, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information  . . .  could be corrected, deleted or retracted.”

So it wasn’t the initial act by Dustin that subjected his parents to damages, it was their failure to deal at all with the situation for another eleven months.

Doesn’t make sense? Try these parallels. A shopper in a supermarket slips on some water in the store.  The store isn’t liable unless the evidence shows that the store knew about the puddle and had failed to clean it up. A dog owner isn’t responsible for his dog biting someone unless the owner knew the dog had a history of biting and the owner didn’t do anything to prevent it from happening again.

Here, Dustin’s parents face liability for the same reason; they allowed the libel to go on and on and on.

Stay tuned. This was an October 10, 2014 decision, so the jury trial comes next.