We received a call from a client who was on the wrong end of a social media barbecuing. The client wanted to know if we have laws to stop this kind of thing in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has a few laws on the books to deal with those sweethearts who are dispensing aggressive and foolish social media comments to the detriment of others. Here are some examples:
A person harmed may seek equitable relief, recover compensatory damages and a reasonable amount for attorney’s fees. The threshold for filing a suit requires one of the following to occur:
• Intrusion upon the privacy of another of a nature highly offensive to a reasonable person, in a place that a reasonable person would consider private or in a manner which is actionable for trespass.
• The use, for advertising purposes or for purposes of trade, of the name, portrait or picture of any living person, without having first obtained the written consent of the person or, if the person is a minor, of his or her parent or guardian.
• Publicity given to a matter concerning the private life of another, of a kind highly offensive to a reasonable person, if the defendant has acted either unreasonably or recklessly as to whether there was a legitimate public interest in the matter involved, or with actual knowledge that none existed.
It is not a privacy violation to communicate any information that is already readily available to the public.
Criminal Law Statute Gives Rise to a Civil Claim:
Criminal defamation charges that can be made by the government against these people too. Conduct defaming someone else is prohibited under Wisconsin Statute section 942.01 et seq. This is not typically pursued by the authorities unless it reaches a level well beyond what most folks could tolerate. Knowing this, a civil claim can also be filed based on this same statute. It is available to a person harmed even if the District Attorney does not press charges, or if charges are pressed, unrelated to the outcome of the criminal case.
Wisconsin common law claims could also be applied to a person’s reckless use of the social media. Legal claims for defamation, libel or slander have been used. Generally, suits can be had if the person who:
• Makes a false statement communicated by speech, or conducted in writing to a person other than the one defamed, and
• the communication is unprivileged and tends to harm one’s reputation, lowering him or her in the estimation of the community or deterring third persons from associating with or dealing with him or her.
Case examples … See: Ladd v. Uecker, et. al, 2010 WI App 28 and Laughland v. Beckett, Appeal No. 2014AP2393
As recent as 2015, the Wisconsin Appeals Court upheld a Facebook defamation judgment, and punitive damages award based on the defamation statute and under common law principles. See Laughland v. Beckett, Appeal No. 2014AP2393 in the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District I. In the case, John Beckett created a Facebook page in someone else’s name and posted disparaging and negative comments about Laughland. Laughland sued and won. Also see an excellent article in the Wisconsin Bar Site (WISBAR News) on this case authored by Joe Forward in August of 2015.
A good friend said it is better to sleep on a social media response than to just let it fly based on the emotion of the moment. Point well taken. Consider the consequences before you type something mean. Cyber-bullying is not funny. It might feel good now to throw another person under the social media bus, but be careful. Your social media victim could have the last say in the matter.