Facebook Posts Can Land You In Jail!

Did you know that a single Facebook post can land you in jail?  Its true, an acting judge in Westchester NY recently ruled that a ‘tag’ notification on Facebook violated  a protective order.  The result of the violation; second-degree contempt, which can lead to punishment of up to a year in jail.   In January, the a judge issued a  restraining order against Maria Gonzalez, prohibiting her from communicating with her former sister-in-law, Maribel Calderon.  Restraining orders are issued to prevent person from making contact with protected individuals.  Traditionally, courts interpreted contact to mean direct communications in person, mail, email, phone, voicemail or even text.   Facebook tags, however, present a slightly different form of contact.

Unlike Facebook messages, tagging someone identifies the tagged person on the poster’s Facebook page.  The tag, however, has the concurrent effect of linking to the identified person’s profile; thereby notifying them of the post.  Ms. Gonzalez tagged Calderon in a post on her (Gonzalez’s) timeline calling Calderon stupid and writing “you have a sad family.”  Gonzalez argued the post did not violate the protective order since there was no contact aimed directly at Calderon.  Acting Westchester (NY) County Supreme Court Justice Susan Capeci felt otherwise writing a restraining order includes “contacting the protected party by electronic or other means.”  Other means, it seems, is through personal posts put out on social media.

And Social Media posts aren’t just evidence of orders of protection violations, they are also grounds for supporting the issuance of restraining orders.  In 2013, a court granted an order of protection for actress Ashley Tinsdale against an alleged stalker.  Tinsdale’s lawyers presented evidence of over 19,000 tweets that the alleged stalker posted about the actress (an average of 100 tweets per day).

The bottom line:  Naming another on a social media post, even one that is directed to the twittersphere or Facebook community, rather than toward a particular individual,  is sufficient contact for purposes of supporting restraining orders or violations thereof.   We should all keep our posts positives –even more so if we have been told to stay away!!!

Would a juror believe that Bob Marley “shot the sheriff” if he posted it to his Facebook Page?

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the prosecution’s introduction of social media evidence to support a conviction against an alleged gang member for narcotics sales, murder and related crimes. The case, United States v. Pierce,  concerned several defendants including Melvin Colon, a member of a Bronx N.Y. street gang.  As evidence against Colon, the prosecution introduced posts Colon made to his Facebook page including a video of Colon rapping “Somebody make somebody nose bleed / I’m OG shoot the Ruger / I’m a shooter,” and a picture of Colon’s hand showing a “Y.G.K.” tattoo.  YGK stands for Young Gunnaz Killer, and Gunnaz was the rival gang against whom Colon committed his violence.

At trial Colon argued that introduction of the Facebook posts violated his First Amendment rights because his conviction “rested on a form of expression, however distasteful, which the Constitution tolerates and protects.” The Court rejected his argument since the speech was not the basis of the prosecution, in other words, Colon was not prosecuted for making the posts, but rather the posts were used as evidence of his participation in a different crime.

The Court also rejected Colon’s argument that the Facebook posts were merely “fictional artistic expression,” which should not be used against him.  The Second Circuit, referencing a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, acknowledged that violent rap lyrics alone are insufficient to sustain a conviction.  However, where the violent rap lyrics and the like survive a Fed. R. Evid. 403 challenges and their probative value outweighs their danger of unfair prejudice, the evidence is admissible.  The court ultimately sustained Colon’s conviction.

Jurors and Social Media Use: Survey Results Point to a Solution

After hearing all of the frighteningly careless stories of social media use by jurors, it is nice to finally read some encouraging news on the topic.   A recently published article in the Duke Law and Technology Review titled “More From the #Jury Box: The Latest on Juries and Social Media,” has revealed that juror instructions on the use of social media appear to be highly effective in deterring juror use of social media during trial.  The authors’ conclusions are based on the results of a survey of jurors in federal and state courts on their use of social media during their jury service.  The surveys began in 2011 and have continued through the publication of this article in order to get a complete picture of juror attitudes toward social media and determine whether the landscape is changing.  The results of the survey strongly supported the notion that jury instructions are the most effective tool in mitigating the risk of juror misconduct through social media.  This is certainly a step in the right direction, as the surveys have helped to identify a potential solution to this recent problem that the rise of social media use has ushered in.

The article points out that “[t]he impartial jury has survived the telephone, the radio, the automobile, and the television.  There is no reason why it cannot survive Facebook and Twitter, too.”  Though jurors have always been instructed to refrain from discussing the trial with anyone, practically speaking there was nothing to stop a juror from going home and calling everyone in their phonebook to chat with them about the trial.  Tweeting or posting on Facebook about the trial would not only likely reach a much wider audience, but this misconduct can also be more easily detected due to the lax privacy settings of many social media users.  Social media has also simply given jurors additional opportunities to disobey the law, particularly when many are accustomed to alerting all of cyberspace to their every move and thought.

The good news is that jurors appear to respond well to instructions—the survey results indicated that those who were tempted to use social media during trial but refrained from doing so, acted accordingly based on admonishments from the court to abstain from using social media.  Specifically, the authors of the article offer three suggestions regarding when and how to administer these instructions to the jury, including early and often, as well as recommending that relevant content be included in the instructions and examples of prohibited activities be provided.

What I find odd about these suggestions is that they indicate that jurors are not willfully disobeying the court’s instructions, but instead are simply forgetting—or worse, not knowing—that they are not supposed to be tweeting or posting about the trial.  I had always assumed that jurors who participated in these prohibited activities knew that their social media use was unlawful and were either maliciously attempting to sabotage the trial, or, more likely, merely hoping or assuming they wouldn’t be caught.  What the reality of the situation is, according to this survey, might be more troubling to me than what I had initially assumed, because it points to a disturbing level of ignorance about the legal system and the importance of their role as a jury member.

Therefore, it seems that until jurors intuitively assume that they should refrain from using social media during trial, specific and frequent instructions on the matter is the best solution to prevent this misconduct.

California Law Mandates Allowing Minors to Delete Social Media Posts

California has recently become the first state to enact a law requiring social media companies to give young users (under-18) the chance to delete regretful posts. Federal law lacks such a provision due mainly to the opposing argument that this would be too burdensome on social media companies. Many young social media users do not think before posting irresponsible, reputation-damaging words and pictures to the Internet. The “erase bill” was signed Monday by Governor Jerry Brown and comes into effect in January 2015.

The erase bill is lauded by many such as the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, who stated, “[t]his puts privacy in the hands of kids, teenagers and the parents, not under the control of an anonymous tech company.” Senate leader Darrell Steinberg noted, “This is a groundbreaking protection for our kids who often act impetuously…before they think through the consequences. They deserve the right to remove this material that could haunt them for years to come.” The law also mandates that social media companies inform minors about their right to erase posts.

One blatant flaw in the legislation is that the law does not force the companies to remove the content completely from the servers. The posts thus survive in the vast cyber-sphere. However, allowing minors to retract ignorant statements and posts from the Internet seems to be a good start in the direction of future federal protection.

The article discussing this new legislation notes that pictures and posts discoverable online could ruin a young person’s ability to land a prestigious summer internship or even admittance into college. After all, employers and recruiters certainly Google young applicants, probably even before reading their applications.

The aim of this legislation is to get other states on board, and eventually to persuade Washington to construct binding law. As a graduate student without any social media, I never had to worry about the potential issues arising from regrettable social media posts. However, as we all make mistakes, especially in our teenage years, it seems appropriate to me that lawmakers would want to give minors the ability to right their wrongs in the days following such posts. I often regret words that come out of my mouth, let alone statements and/or photos that are memorialized on the Internet.

Do you think a young person’s future should be jeopardized for posting substance on the Internet that reflects a moment of their stupidity? We all undoubtedly must be held accountable for what we say, but shouldn’t minors get some leeway? Or, should schools and companies seeking to hire these minors be privy to the potential for such misconduct? I for one support this type of legislation. What do you think?


“Erase Law” News Article

Social Media: Brand Builder or Mind Poison?

A recent interview on ESPN’s radio show Mike & Mike (you can find an article and podcast here) featured two prominent NCAA basketball coaches, John Calipari and Rick Pitino. On paper, these two coaches couldn’t be similar; age (only 6 years apart), coaches at powerhouse basketball schools (University of Kentucky and Louisville separated by only 75 miles), banners (three championships and 11 Final Four appearances between the two, although two of Calipari’s appearances have since been vacated) and the list could go on. While their knowledge and love for the game of basketball may be similar, their view on social media is vastly different.

Pitino referred to social media as a “poison” on his players and he bans them from using sites like Twitter while Calipari refers to social media as a brand builder and goes as far as to encourage his players to participate and use social media platforms. These opposite stances on social media couldn’t be a better illustration of why there is so much debate when it comes to the NCAA and its regulation of social media. You have some coaches prohibiting players from using social media and others promoting the use and regardless of the stance of its coaches, the schools continue to shell out the dough to monitor its players use of social media. If that isn’t a clear example of mixed signals then I don’t know what is.

Many schools, like UK and Louisville, spend tens of thousands of dollars to use monitoring software systems that flag certain keywords and content being used in a post or tweet. The athletes actually must agree to let the school monitor its social media use as a precondition to participate in their respective sports. Some legal scholars view this as a clear violation to the athletes’ First Amendment right to free speech and those views have gained traction as some states have prohibited schools from monitoring the social media accounts of its athletes. The NCAA has encouraged schools to monitor its student athletes on social media sites and in response we have state legislatures passing laws to ban the schools from doing so; another example of how far off we are from some type of amicable resolution.

People are entitled to their own opinions about social media, but we run into problems when those differing opinions lead to ambiguous regulations and policies. It’s hard to say which side has the better argument or if monitoring student-athlete social media accounts is warranted in the first place, but it’s clear that this issue is far from being resolved.

Facebook and Envy

As one of the few people my age (twenty-four) without Facebook (or any social media), I found an article published in The Economist in August 2013 to be pretty stimulating. The article, entitled “Facebook is Bad for You: Get a Life” summarizes several studies indicating that those who use Facebook are more miserable in life. According to a study recently published by the Public Library of Science, “the more someone uses Facebook, the less satisfied he is with life.”

According to the article, past studies have found that using Facebook causes jealousy, social tension, isolation, and even depression. Dr. Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Dr. Philippe Verduyn of Leuven University in Belgium conducted a study where they tracked eighty-two ‘Facebookers’ for two weeks and evaluated their changes in emotion. The guinea pigs were all in their late teens or early twenties and agreed to have their Facebook activity and real life encounters monitored for two weeks, reporting five times a day on their state of mind via a short questionnaire. When researchers analyzed the results, it was determined that “the more a volunteer used Facebook in the period between two questionnaires, the worse he reported feeling the next time he filled in a questionnaire.” While those who used Facebook more frequently reported a decline in satisfaction, those who had more direct contact with others, via personal encounters or phone calls, were more positive. “In other words, the more volunteers socialized in the real world, the more positive they reported feeling the next time they filled in the questionnaire.” The results led the doctors to conclude that Facebook actually undermines one’s well-being.

The article also cites a past study conducted by social scientists in Germany who surveyed 584 Facebook users in their twenties. “They found that the most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy. Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarized their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed.” The study concluded that encountering people in real life is much more realistic and thus more rewarding.

When I first read this article, I was skeptical of the results of the studies. However, upon more reflection, I recalled numerous people I know who have been ‘brought down’ after seeing something on Facebook. This is not why I do not have Facebook. I choose not to have Facebook because I believe in privacy– I do not think it is anyone’s business to know what I am doing, but even more so, I do not think that anyone would care. That being said, I can appreciate the connections people maintain through social media and would never criticize users. To each his own.

This article does, however, make a lot of sense. Why would anyone want to expose themselves to potentially being less satisfied with life because of nonsense read on social media? On the other hand, are these studies merely blowing Facebook’s effects out of proportion? I would be interested to hear responses from Facebook users. I would assume (admittedly ignorantly) that if you are confident enough in yourself, Facebook cannot negatively impact your life. Thoughts?


The Economist

“Happy Valentines Day :)”

There can be no doubt that social media has changed our society; changed the way we communicate, the way we obtain information, and, even now, the way we advocate. Social media has developed from a communication tool to a public forum  that individuals use to judge one another.

In the recent weeks the National Football League (NFL) has been put under the lens of the social media microscope. First, Michael Sam, a highly decorated collegiate football player, declared that he was a homosexual male. Once drafted, this will mark the first time in the league’s history that a player who is openly homosexual will play the game. Although many athletes have declared their sexuality once they retired, no player had previous declared such sexuality while playing the game. Of course, Sam’s declaration was thrown into the social media fire. His courage, strength, and self-confidence was met with overwhelming support as athletes from various profession sports chimed in on the topic. Players from various NFL locker rooms took to Twitter and Facebook to support Sam and his journey to the NFL. In the eyes of the public, the NFL gained even more repute than it had previously.

Today, however, the NFL and some of its more notorious players have been summoned to the court of social justice located in the realm of social media. This morning, Ted Wells, an NFL investigator, released a 144 page report documenting instances of hazing, racial slurs, and other degrading behavior performed by Richie Incognito and other Miami Dolphin’s players. This controversy began in October 2013 when Incognito’s teammate Jonathan Martin quit profession football and was hospitalized for mental health. The NFL swiftly jumped in and hired Wells to conduct an investigation.

In reaction to this incident, many took to social media. Some individuals, including NFL players and analysts, believed that Martin was over reacting and should have confronted Incognito. Others rallied behind Martin and deemed Incognito a bully. But no matter what most people believed, expectations changed with the release of the 144 page report. On Espn’s NFL Insiders, airing 3pm Eastern Time, tweets were read indicating the shock of most at the findings. One individual, who was skeptic that Martin’s allegations had merit, admitted that their perspective had changed.

In the shadow of this controversy is Incognito’s tweet from Wednesday stating, “The truth is going to bury you and your entire ‘camp’”. Incognito took to twitter again today after the report had been released, “Pleeeeease Stop The Hate. Happy Valentines Day :)”.

In a controversy as notorious as this, involving a league as acclaimed as the NFL, all eyes are now fixed upon Roger Goodell and other NFL officials. In today’s society, social media has become the quintessential courtroom and all of us, the jury. We obtain information from social media and use it to make “informed decisions.” Then, we use it to either condemn or exonerate those in the spotlight. Social media, whether we like it or not, has become a mechanism for impacting societal justice. This trend will only grow in the future and attorneys should be ready for trial by Twitter.

For more information see ESPN’s web article entitled “Incognito, others tormented Martin”.


At What Point Will a Court Admit Social Media Evidence?

As social media has become more and more prevalent, courts have been faced with the difficult task of determining the evidentiary standard to be applied to social media.  According to the Bloomberg Social Media Law & Policy Report,[1] courts have generally articulated two different approaches to the authentication of evidence in the form of social media.  Some courts have adopted a standard that allows “a reasonable inference as to the source of the postings [to be] based on their contents, such as statements in the creator’s profile, photographs or references to facts about the creator.”[2]  Other courts require “something more, such as the testimony of the creator, documentation of the internet history or hard drive of the purported creator’s computer or information obtained directly from the social networking site.”[3]

The Delaware Supreme Court, in Parker v. State,[4] recently adopted the less stringent evidentiary standard when it comes to social media evidence, concluding that “social media evidence should be subject to the same authentication requirements under the Delaware rules of Evidence Rule 901(b) as any other evidence.”  While acknowledging the ease with which social media evidence could be fraudulently created, the Delaware Supreme Court believes the issue of authenticity is one to be decided by the jury.  Conversely, the court in Griffin v. State[5] rejected the prosecution’s argument that a person’s photograph and birth date are sufficient to authenticate a Facebook page for evidentiary purposes.  The Maryland court emphasized how easily a person can access another’s Facebook page and that a person only needs an email address to create a fraudulent page. [6]

According to the Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 901, “[t]o satisfy the requirement of authenticating or identifying an item of evidence, the proponent much produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.”[7]  It seems that the Federal Rules of Evidence can be effectively applied to social media, as “evidence sufficient to support a finding” leaves much to be decided by the judge hearing each individual case.   However, giving each judge so much discretion on a case-by-case basis can lead to inconsistent findings based on jurisdiction and, consequently, forum shopping.

In such a progressive world, we must ask whether evidentiary rules can be effectively applied to social media.  Do people abuse and falsify social media so often that rules of evidence should account for that?  Could the more stringent evidentiary standard, which may require an examination of a person’s hard drive or search history, lead to an invasion of a litigant’s privacy?  In a world where the Internet connects people regardless of geography or jurisdiction, is it not crucial that the rules of evidence be applied equally throughout the country?  Hopefully we will learn the answers to these questions in the near future.

[1] Hugh Kaplan, Court Chooses More Permissive Approach to Authentication of Social Media Evidence, Bloomberg Social Media Law & Policy Report, Feb. 7, 2014.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] 2014 BL 32616, Del., No. 38-2013, 2/5/14.

[5] 19 A.3d 415 (Md. 2011).

[6] Id.

[7] FRE Rule 901(a).

Yelp! at Your Own Risk

What is Yelp?

Yelp, Inc. is an American company that operates an “online urban guide” and business review site. The company’s website began as an email service for exchanging local business recommendations and later introduced social networking features, discounts, and mobile applications.[i] The company’s website contains a discussion forum and other social networking features. It requires reviewers to register and encourages them to create a user profile. It offers “praise and attention” to user reviewers plus special status and social events for its most popular, prolific and “elite” members.[ii]

Simple enough, right? So what’s all the fuss about?

It has become increasingly apparent that writing Yelp reviews may land you in some hot water, which begs the question “Why would writing a negative review get me sued?” The site asks for users to write honest, first-hand accounts of what their experience was like. Yet, when that honest review turns out to be negative/critical, some business owners may not take it so lightly. In the last week or so there have been at least two lawsuits dealing with Yelp reviews, which actually bookend the spectrum of potential outcomes arising from disgruntled reviews. On one end of the spectrum is a review that stated a contractor damaged and stole the reviewer’s property.[iii] The jury came back with a guilty verdict for defamation.[iv] On the other end of the spectrum was a review of a local dentist, who attempted to sue for defamation, but his claim was dismissed referencing California’s Anti-SLAPP Law.[v]

Ok, so the Anti-SLAPP Laws will protect me then?

Not necessarily. California provides a special motion to strike strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which is intended to put a quick end to nonmeritorious lawsuits designed to suppress speech on a matter of public concern.[vi] Public reviews of businesses, health care, restaurants and any other type of service provider, have been around since the first customer was served. Services like Yelp have made the dissemination of these reviews readily available to anyone willing to read them. One would think that every state would have an Anti-SLAPP statute protecting the public, but that is not the case, as 21 states have not enacted an Anti-SLAPP law.[vii] One of those states, Virginia, was home to the first review I mentioned where the defendant was found guilty of defamation after being sued by her contractor. Would an Anti-SLAPP statute have helped her? Should every state have a statute similar to California? It’s tough to say, but one could easily make the argument that Anti-SLAPP laws unnecessarily expand our First Amendment Rights.

[i] Yelp, Inc., wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yelp,_Inc (last visited February 8, 2014).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Perez v. Dietz Development LLC, Va. Cir. Ct., CL 2012-16249, jury verdict 1/31/14.

[iv] Id.

[v] Rahbar v. Batoon, Cal. Ct. App., No. A136463, unpublished 1/31/14.

[vi] 23 HLR 221 (Issue No. 6, 02/06/14).

[vii] Public Participation Project, Anti-Slapp.org, http://www.anti-slapp.org/your-states-free-speech-protection/ (last visited February 8, 2014).

A Response to “Blurred Lines and the Right to Privacy”

In “Blurred Lines and the Right to Privacy”, Huffington Post writer Debbie Hines urges people to emotionally connect more with issues of online privacy violation.  Ms. Hines boldly claims that the only way she believes action against online privacy violations will be taken is when we feel as emotionally violated in regards to online privacy as we would if someone were to break into our own homes—and she certainly seems to think we should, given that she states that “our online personal data by far out values any possessions in our homes.”  She also invokes the Civil Rights movement as another example of a situation where serious action will only be taken when the public becomes emotionally involved.  The author’s central inquiry is in regards to what will be the emotional stimulus that will ultimately move us in the direction to take action and protect against online privacy violations?

While I agree that online privacy is important in respect to information that is on the internet without your knowledge and consent, I have to disagree with the general tone of Ms. Hines article.  To equate the emotional violation that is online privacy invasions to that of a person’s home being ransacked by burglars is slightly outrageous to me.  Though I do not doubt that at least an equivalent amount of both financial and emotional harm could be achieved through both kinds of violations, the way we have been taught to view the internet makes this an incongruous comparison.  The internet is premised on the notion of open access to information; it is a forum that we all utilize when seeking out any imaginable type of information.  While it’s clear that the author is not referring to limiting this laissez-faire informational exchange, her opinions on such privacy violations seem to negate the general premise, purpose, and intent of the internet.

Furthermore, the expectation of privacy issue needs to be addressed.  In our society, we are taught to view our activity on the internet through a distrustful lense.  We are continually warned of the pitfalls that come from simply ignoring the privacy settings on social media accounts, let alone the far more damaging threats of identity theft, both in regards to our personal, professional, and financial lives.  While I do believe that it would be nice to feel a sense of security on the internet, I just do not think that the public’s expectation of privacy on the internet is particularly high, nor should it be; and it is certainly not near the level of privacy expectation one would have in one’s own home.  To feel as secure on the internet would be dangerously naïve, particularly in light of some of the egregious and highly publicized internet privacy violations that the author refers to.

So while I am in no way belittling Ms. Hines proposition, I think that until the internet is a truly safe place, it would be more prudent and practical to instead focus on taking defensive measures to protect ourselves and our online information.