A Georgia seventh-grader created a fake Facebook profile that defamed a classmate, according to this Wall Street Journal story. In middle school fashion (I am not looking forward to parenting through this period), a boy created a fake Facebook profile of a female classmate, used a “Fat Face” app to alter her appearance and posted “false, profane, and ethnically offensive information” on the page.
The school found out, punished the boy with in school suspension for two weeks and told his parents. At home, the boy was grounded for a week. Despite this punishment in school, the page stayed up for 11 months before Facebook finally took it down.
The girl’s family sued claiming the parents were negligent and contributed to the girl’s suffering. Parents have money and insurance and make a better target than a seventh-grader in a lawsuit for damages. The trial court dismissed the negligence claims against the parents in a summary judgment ruling.
On appeal, the court upheld the dismissal of the claims related to the original creation of the fake profile, but wrote:
Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional eleven months, we conclude that a jury could find that the [parents’] negligence proximately caused some part of the injury [the girl] sustained from [the boy’s] actions (and inactions).
You can read the full opinion here.
The court noted:
During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They 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 Dustin was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.
Georgia law is similar to the law in many states — parents are not simply liable based on the parent-child relationship. Usually, there has to be some liability based on the parents’ alleged failure to supervise or control their child where there is a foreseeability of harm. Applying this standard the court wrote:
The [parents] contend that they had no reason to anticipate that [son] would engage in that conduct until after he had done so, when they received notice from the school that he had been disciplined for creating the unauthorized Facebook profile. Based on this, they contend that they cannot be held liable for negligently supervising [son]’s use of the computer and Internet account. The [parents]’ argument does not take into account that, as [son]’s parents, they continued to be responsible for supervising [son]’s use of the computer and Internet after learning that he had created the unauthorized Facebook profile.
This appears to be the first published opinion dealing with parental liability for a child’s online behavior. I have dealt with this issue at the trial court level, but usually resolve the issues rather than force minors to go through a public trial and discovery. The unfortunate aspect is the case returns to the trial court and continues. If only there were a teachable moment.
Stealing a theme from Morrison Foster’s Socially Aware blog post entitled “Forced to Cyber-Spy” about the case, when your kids complain that you don’t give them any privacy online – you can tell them that until they pay the homeowners’ premiums or the lawyers, you get to monitor their social media use.