KEMPA Journalism

Libel in the age of social media: potentially a perilous path


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By Bob Kay

Historically most high school publications donʼt have to deal with the issue of being hit with a libel suit. In this day and age with the proliferation of information on social media that can be tempting to use in student publications, there is a much greater chance of being sued if students use this information without checking the source carefully. As we all know there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet, and if you repeat this information, even if you think it is a reliable source, you can have a problem if you defame someone.

In order for someone to bring a successful libel lawsuit against a publication, they need to prove three elements.

  • First they have to prove that the information published or broadcast about them is false.
  • Second they must prove that it was communicated to multiple third parties or in this case published, broadcast, or disseminated by the student publication.
  • Finally they must show that they have been defamed in such a manner that they will suffer some type of damages (eg. financial or to their reputation). The best defense against a lawsuit for libel is the truth. And even though you may think that what you have published is absolutely true, you still have to be able to prove that it is true in a court of law. In this day and age of litigation mania, it is sometimes difficult to prove that something is true.

This information is not meant to scare students, but to caution you to be careful. You canʼt just repeat something that you get from social media and think that it must be true and you are protected. If the information you obtain is libelous, your act of repeating it in your publication is just as libelous. The best advice is to follow solid journalism practices (which Iʼm sure all of you try to do), and that is to check your sources carefully and make sure you have at least two or three solid sources to back up your claims.

Bob Kay is the former newspaper adviser at Grayslake Central High School in Illinois.  An attorney, he is now a member of the KEMPA board.  His blog focuses on First Amendment issues for scholastic publications. He likes both legal and political issues.

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