In recent cases brought to the Florida Supreme Court, freedom of speech and freedom of the press were upheld by verdicts that refuse Florida citizens the right to sue publications for embarrassing them publicly, as long as the information is factual.
But is this outcome a good thing? To a certain extent, it is.
For the media, more protection is offered against these “false light” lawsuits — cases that claim invasion of privacy or emotional distress caused by false portrayals of individuals, even if the information portrayed is true. For the public, the right to receive truthful information is sustained.
But on a level more relevant to college students, there may be fewer negative consequences for those who go online and post critical words about other people.
Juicycampus.com recently made headlines when several students felt unfairly attacked by gossip that others students had posted. The Web site allows users to post anonymous gossip — the juicier the better — without fear of retribution. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 shields the site from being sued for libelous and defamatory third-party comments posted on its pages.
Since the postings are anonymous, it is difficult to discipline those who libel or post personal information.
For an individual to bring an invasion of privacy lawsuit against someone, false light cannot be used as an argument in Florida and numerous other states. The claim has to be brought under defamation, which requires more tangible evidence and is difficult to prove if the identity of the writer cannot be determined.
Unfortunately, the emotional distress caused by derogatory comments and gossip on Juicy Campus cannot generally be tangibly proven. Regardless, there is a definite invasion of privacy and damage to the targeted person’s reputation.
Just because something is true does not mean it should be published. Good judgment must be exercised as to whether sensitive situations are relevant enough to risk casting a negative light on another person.
Ultimately, Juicy Campus posters must check their own moral compasses and consider what harm their comments could cause before hitting the “submit” button. Though it is good that the right to free speech is being upheld, they shouldn’t spout their opinions recklessly.
In the broader context, with the elimination of false light pleadings in the Florida court system, there are clearer standards as to what defamation law is and less confusion as to what can be legally published.
The decision to cast out false light cases does not make news organizations and individuals unaccountable for their words but makes facetious lawsuits avoidable. Both media outlets and individuals should absolutely be held accountable for their words, particularly if they hold the potential to cause harm. They can still be sued for defamation and are not exempt from liability.
Words hold great power. And with the ability to write and share them, we are obligated to publish the truth and cause as little harm as possible. Defenders of First Amendment rights should have the intelligence and maturity to know when they are toeing the line between free speech and a lack of respect for their fellow human beings.
Daylina Miller is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.