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Prejudging justice – lessons from the US

By MARK PEARSON

A riveting session at this week’s AEJMC convention in Chicago was billed “Prejudging Justice: The News Media and Prominent Criminal Trials”, featuring high profile defence attorney Andrea D. Lyon – known as the ‘angel of death row’.

Lyon won a murder acquittal last year for Casey Anthony who was accused of killing her two-year-old daughter Caylee, a trial attracting global media attention.

Her experience in that case and many others has informed her critical view of the US approach to high profile trials, which she explains in detail in a recent article in the Reynolds Courts and Media Law Journal.

Lyon has formed the view that publicity generally hurts a criminal defendant and leads to a presumption of guilt rather than innocence in the minds of jurors.

It is worth considering the views of Lyon and her fellow panelists at a time when courts in Australia and other Commonwealth jurisdictions are looking to the US example as a potential salve to their growing concerns about prejudicial Web 2.0 coverage of trials.

One view is that the only option is to move to a US system where the solution is via instruction to jurors to avoid accessing social media materials related to the case, sequestering juries or moving trials to a new location distant from the heat of publicity.

Professor W. Joseph Campbell from American University gave an insight into the lengths US journalists have been willing to go in their coverage of sensational crimes.

The antics of newspaper journalists during the 1897 ‘sausage murder’ trial in Chicago far outstrip the more recent phone hacking sins of News of the World reporters and private eyes.

As Campbell explained, journalists were so desperate to hear the deliberations of the locked jury in this case that they lowered a reporter from the Independent by rope down an air shaft from the attic of the courthouse building so he could listen to the jurors’ discussions and relay them back to his co-conspirators using a hose.

Chicago Sun-Times courts reporter Rummana Hussain explained this would never be attempted or tolerated today, given the hurdles presented to her and other media in the recent Balfour murder trial where the victims were relatives of celebrity Jennifer Hudson, prompting substantial media attention.

Hussain was left to negotiate with the judge the reporting permissions of the whole press contingent and was able to extract the privilege of using cellphones to communicate from the court to their newsrooms via text messages.

But she could not convince him to allow live tweeting from the courtroom – only from the overflow room where the proceedings were televised.

Even that arrangement was suspended for a day by the irate beak after a reporter’s phone sounded in the court after his numerous warnings to place them in silent mode. Hussain explained she even had to play attorney and present to the court an argument on why the media should be granted access to tapes played during proceedings.

American University journalism professor John C. Watson drew upon communication news framing theory to propose that journalists should frame their court and crime stories in terms of what citizens needed to know instead of merely what the public wanted to know.

“The press create a scenario in which the defendant is assumed to be guilty,” he told the audience. “The press has framed the case from the prosecutorial perspective.”

He said the judiciary was potentially the most dangerous branch of government with real potential to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and their ability to pursue happiness.

“The judicial process can kill innocent people and the press are the first line of defence against that,” he said.

“Journalists have to remember they are reporting for the primary purpose of protecting the people against their government.”

He pointed to an emerging crisis with the coverage of trials on social media, and suggested the British system where there was “no reporting until afterward” might be a preferable alternative to the US approach.

But the panel’s “star witness”, Andrea Lyon, took the line that open coverage was important to the judicial process, but must be exercised responsibly.

“The prosecution already has a lot of power – there are almost no brakes on it,” she said. “There are no brakes on framing someone. The only way we’ll have brakes is through fair reporting.”

She took issue with the privacy invasion and voyeurism of coverage in sensational trials.

“I’m sick of my clients’ and victims’ terrible stories becoming fodder for cheap entertainment,” she said.

She was physically assaulted twice during the Casey Anthony trial and was angered when a major newspaper republished a blog detailing the time she would arrive at court and contemptlated “the trouble they would get in for just hitting me rather than hitting me with a bat”.

She wrote in the Reynolds Courts and Media Law Journal article: “What is troubling is the public’s fascination with this case, the need to make Anthony a villain, and how the media helped feed this mob mentality.”

“They landed, heavily, on any witness who spoke up in Anthony’s favor, making witnesses extraordinarily difficult to find and interview because everyone was afraid of the backlash from the public and the prosecution,” Lyon continued.

She told the seminar she regretted the negative influence of the television program “Law and Order” on the public perception of courts and trials, as well as the rise of “expert” court commenters who typically knew little about the specific cases they were discussing but were fodder for television commentary because of their legal training.

Social media aggravated the situation, she said, with more than 100 blogs devoted to the Casey Anthony case.

Australian, New Zealand and British policymakers could learn much from this session as they contemplate a future of more open public discussion of prominent trials in social media – even if tough restrictions on the legacy media are maintained.

This “two-speed” approach might well keep the pages of the press and the airwaves of radio and television free of prejudicial material.

But it is naive to think that prospective jurors and witnesses will not venture onto blogs, Facebook and Twitter to get every salacious detail on a celebrity accused in the next big Whodunnit.

Short of effective controls across jurisdictions in cyberspace, which appears unlikely, it seems the integrity of the jury system will rely on effective instructions to jurors and better justice education for the broader citizenry.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Queensland’s biggest publisher – the police – try to calm the FB lynch mob

By MARK PEARSON

The resources of the Queensland Police Service Facebook fan page were stretched over the past 24 hours to cope with the public response to their announcement of an arrest of a suspect in one of Brisbane’s most compelling ‘whodunnit’ murder mysteries.

Mainstream and social media speculation about the case has been rampant since 43-year-old Allison Baden-Clay went missing on April 23. Her husband Gerard appeared in court today charged with her murder.

As I have blogged previously, the Queensland Police Service has a highly successful Facebook page which established the bulk of its 289,500 fan base during the devastating Brisbane floods in January last year. It proved an excellent community communication tool during the disaster and since then as a crime detection aid as the public volunteer leads on unsolved crimes and public safety.

But the challenge comes when Police Media announce on their Facebook page the apprehension of a suspect in a high profile case.

The problem with Facebook fan pages is that you must have the ‘comment’ function turned completely ‘on’ or ‘off’ – so the best the police can do is monitor the feed and remove offensive or prejudicial material after it has been posted.

That might be fine during an uneventful day when the police social media team can keep on top of the message flow – but when an arrest has been made in an emotion-charged crime like a murder or a child sex attack many fans want to ‘vent’.

That’s what happened with the arrest of a suspect in the murder of Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe last August.

It happened again last night and today as, within 21 hours, more than 500 fans commented on the Police Media announcement that Baden-Clay had been charged with his wife’s murder and more than 1,500 ‘liked’ the announcement. Those 506 comments were the ones that survived the post-publication moderation process where officers in the social media unit trawl through the latest posts to delete the inappropriate ones.

The law of sub judice in Australia dictates that nothing can be published that might prejudice the trial of an accused after they have been arrested or charged. That includes any assumption of guilt (or even innocence), evidentiary material, theories about the crime, witness statements, prior convictions or character material about the accused. It even bans visual identification of the accused if that might be an issue in court. In a murder trial it usually is.

The penalty can be a criminal conviction on your record, a stiff fine and sometimes even a jail term for contempt of court.

Once the accused has appeared in court, journalists covering the matter are protected from both contempt and defamation action if they write a ‘fair and accurate’ report of the hearing, sticking to material stated in open court in the presence of the jury – if there is one.

It’s hard enough for reporters to get their heads around these rules – let alone the Facebook fans posting their theories on a murder to the police Facebook page.

Even some of the posts that have survived the police editing process to date push the boundaries of acceptable commentary on a pending case.

One stands out: “Ann Gray: Took long enough. It was obvious that he did it. Hope he rots in jail.”

That was six hours after the announcement, and obviously the moderators were running short on patience with their ‘fans’. The moderators took to calling those speculating on the crime “Facebook detectives”. One replied to Ms Gray: “Queensland Police Service: Ann Gray *sigh* Really? The third detective we have commenting on here that does not comprehend what it takes? I suggest you don’t pass judgement on something that you know nothing about!”, and then “Queensland Police Service: I am not sure ‘because it is obvious’ is suffice (sic) evidence in court, Facebook detectives. It is a matter before the courts. Enough!”

They also tried with a standard warning to commenters that was pasted into the discussion on several occasions: “Facebookers who are just joining this post, please do not speculate on this matter. Any posts which do are deleted and those who continue will be banned from our FB page. Please respect our rules. Thanks.”

One fan – Bec Mooney – suggested the police disable their comments function if they were so concerned about offensive and prejudicial material appearing, to which the police replied: “Queensland Police Service Bec Mooney – WE CAN’T DISABLE COMMENTS. Take that issue to Facebook. Even if we could, it would contradict the idea of social media.”

Do I sense a little attitude here? Clearly, the officers were getting tired and frustrated in the midst of the onslaught of the ‘lynch mob’, but surely the correspondent Ms Mooney had a valid point.

As I blogged earlier this week, Australian courts have ruled that the hosts of such fan pages are legally responsible for the comments of others on their sites and must act within a reasonable time to remove illegal or actionable material.

But they haven’t yet had to rule on a serious sub judice matter – so the key question is: How long is it reasonable for a prejudicial statement like the ‘obvious he did it’ and ‘rot in hell’ comment to remain on a public law enforcement agency’s Facebook page? It had been there 15 hours when we took our screen shot and may well still be there when you are reading this.

These rules apply to the mainstream media, and the police fan page has been so successful that it is now Queensland’s biggest publisher on some counts. Its fan base outstrips the Courier-Mail’s circulation, which peaks at 255,000 on a Saturday. And that newspaper – Queensland’s biggest – has fewer than 20,000 fans on its Facebook page. The ABC has just 91,000 nationally.

They aren’t allowed to publish this kind of prejudicial material.

Surely the police have even less excuse for hosting such comments even for a moment. The Queensland Police Service is the arresting and prosecuting authority whose job is to preserve the integrity of the justice process.

I fear it will not be long before a savvy defence lawyer seizes the opportunity to use such prejudicial commentary as grounds for appeal – perhaps resulting in a trial being aborted at great public expense or even a verdict quashed. That would be the exact opposite of what most of these commenters and the police would want.

Social media is clearly a superb resource for police and other agencies to use to connect with their communities and to build public trust. But let’s get sensible with this.

Instead of boasting to the whole world about a high profile arrest like this one, surely the police can hold back and let the mainstream media publish their announcement just as they have done for decades. The message would still get out and at least they would not then have the headache of the avalanche of comments in response to this kind of PR announcement.

The police argue that disabling comments might “contradict the idea of social media”, but surely their hosting of prejudicial material – even for a short time – contradicts the valued right to a fair trial of those they have arrested.  

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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The liability time bomb of comments on your FB fan page #medialaw

By MARK PEARSON

What if someone posted a comment to your Facebook fan page at 5.15pm on a Friday alleging a leading businessman in your community was a paedophile?

How long would it be before someone noticed it? Immediately? Perhaps 9am Monday?

I put this question to a group of suburban newspaper journalists recently, expecting most would not be checking their newspapers’ Facebook pages over the weekend.

I guessed right, but I was amazed when one replied that such a comment would have remained there for the three months since he last looked at his company’s fan page.

Facebook fan pages are a legal time bomb for corporations, particularly in Australia where the courts have yet to rule definitively on the owner’s liability for the comments of others.

In an earlier blog I looked more closely at the decision of Federal Court Justice Ray Finkelstein in the Allergy Pathways case last year.

Justice Finkelstein’s ruled that in a consumer law case a company would have to take reasonable steps to remove misleading and deceptive comments of others from their Facebook fan pages (and Twitter feeds) the instant they had been brought to their attention.

A more recent Federal Court case examined moderated comments on a newspaper’s website in the context of a racial discrimination claim.

In Clarke v. Nationwide News, Justice Michael Barker ordered the publishers of the Perth Now website to pay $12,000 to the mother of three indigenous boys who died after crashing a stolen car and to take down the racist comments about them from readers that had triggered the claim.

Central to the case was the fact that the newspaper employed an experienced journalist to moderate the comments on its site, meaning that it had taken on responsibility as ‘publisher’ of the comments. (The newspaper managing editor’s explanation of the moderation system at paras 170-178 makes for interesting reading too).

Justice Barker distinguished situations where the editors actively moderated readers’ comments from those where they did not (para 110), but restricted that distinction to the operation of s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which requires the “offensive behavior” to have been “because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Unmoderated comments fall outside this because it cannot be proven the publisher shares the commenter’s racist motivation unless the publisher refuses to take down the comments once this has been brought to their attention.

Justice Barker stated:

“If the respondent publishes a comment which itself offends s18C, where the respondent has “moderated” the comment through a vetting process, for example, in order not to offend the general law (or to meet other media standards), then the offence will be given as much by the respondent in publishing the offensive comment as by the original author in writing it.

“In such circumstances, it will be no defence for the respondent media outlet to say, ‘But we only published what the reader sent us’.”

Some might read this to mean that it is safer to run all comments in an unmoderated form – just like a Facebook ‘fan’ page is structured – then take them down if you get a complaint.

Such an approach might sit okay with these decisions in consumer or racial discrimination law, but what happens when the time bomb lands – a shocking defamation imputation, a heinous allegation damaging a forthcoming trial, or the breach of a court order or publication restriction like the naming of a rape victim?

Defamation and contempt are matters of ‘strict liability’, where you might be liable even if you are ignorant of the defamatory or contemptuous content you are publishing. The only intent required is that you intended to publish your publication or were ‘reckless’ in the publishing of the material. And neither has offered protection for publishers providing a forum for the comments of others.

Which brings us back to the question at the very start. If the Federal Court has ruled you should remove unmoderated material breaching consumer or race law within a reasonable time of becoming aware of it, what will courts deem a ‘reasonable time’ for a serious allegation of child molestation about a prominent citizen to remain on a publisher’s Facebook fan page?

If the allegation were about me, I certainly wouldn’t want it remaining there over a weekend. Or even five minutes. Any period of time would be unreasonable for such a dreadful slur.

The High Court established 10 years ago in the Gutnick case that a publisher is responsible for defamation wherever their material is downloaded. As The Age revealed in 2010, a blogger using the pseudonym ‘witch’ launched a series of attacks on a stockmarket forum about technology security company Datamotion Asia Pacific Ltd and its Perth-based chairman and managing director, Ronald Moir. A court ordered the forum host HotCopper to hand over the blogger’s details which could only be traced to an interstate escort service. But private investigation by the plaintiff’s law firm eventually found the true author of the postings on the other side of the nation who was then hit with a $30,000 defamation settlement.

And what if it is a litany of allegations about the accused in an upcoming criminal trial? I have blogged previously about the awkward position the Queensland Police face with their very successful Facebook fan page when citizens comment prejudicially about the arrest of an accused in a criminal case. No matter how well those fan page comments are moderated by police media personnel, they could never keep pace with the prejudicial avalanche of material posted on the arrest of a suspect in a high profile paedophilia case.

That leads to the awkward situation of the key prosecutor of a crime hosting – albeit temporarily – sub judice material on their own site. It can’t be long before defence lawyers use this as a reason to quash a conviction.

The situation is different in many other countries – particularly in the US where s. 230 of the Communication Decency Act gives full protection to ‘interactive computer services’, even protecting blog hosts from liability for comments by users.

Much has changed in the three decades since I had my first letter to the editor published by the Sydney Morning Herald as an 18-year-old student.

I can clearly recall that newspaper’s letters editor phoning me in my suburban Sydney home to check that I really was the author of the letter and that I agreed with his minor edits.  No doubt he then initialled the relevant columns in the official letters log – the standard practice that continues in some newspaper newsrooms today.

But all that caution has been abandoned in the race for relevance in the digital and Web 2.0 eras.

First, it was news organisations’ websites allowing live comments from readers – still largely moderated. For a while, most insisted on identification details from their correspondents.

Next came their publication in hard copy of SMS messages received in response to their stories. My local newspaper – the Gold Coast Bulletin – sometimes publishes several pages of such short texts from readers using witty pseudonyms.

And now we have the Facebook fan pages, where the technology does not allow the pre-moderation of the comments of others. You need to have that facility switched completely ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and it defeats the purpose of engaging with readers for a media organisation to turn off the debate. I can post a Facebook comment from an Internet café under the name ‘Poison Pen’ and it may well be vetted by nobody.

The whole issue is symptomatic of the social media challenges facing both the traditional media and the courts.

Meanwhile, expect to wait a while to see your comments to this blog published. I’ve elected for full moderation of all comments, and have already rejected a couple that seem to leave me exposed as publisher. You can’t be too cautious now, can you?

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Blurred lines for journalists and social media editors: Are you personally liable for an error?

By MARK PEARSON

A short section of my new book – Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued – has the heading ‘Who carries the can?’.

There, I write:

“Most bloggers cherish their independence, but this comes at a price. If you are the sole publisher of your material, then prosecutors and litigants will come looking for you personally. If you write for a larger organisation you share that responsibility with your employer or client. A litigant can still sue you as the writer, but they might choose to target your wealthier publisher – particularly if you are an impoverished freelancing blogger.

“In the 20th century, large media organisations would usually pay the legal costs and damages awards against their journalists if they were sued and give them the services of their in-house counsel to guide them through any civil or criminal actions. Most of the so-called ‘legacy media’ still do that today, so if you are a mainstream reporter or columnist thinking of going solo with your blog you might weigh this up first. Another advantage of writing for a large media group is that your work will be checked by editors with some legal knowledge and perhaps even vetted by the company’s lawyers before being published. Either way, you might investigate insuring yourself against civil damages, although even in countries where this is available premiums are rising with each new Internet lawsuit. Another option is to scout for liability insurance policies offered by authors’ and bloggers’ associations. Search to check your options.”

The issue has come into sharp focus with journalists’ own tweeting under their personal handles in recent times. My recent piece in The Australian, reproduced below, looked at the question of journalists’ standards of independence and fairness on Twitter compared with the expectations placed upon them in their ‘day jobs’.

Organisations have started to develop social media policies for their reporters’ and social media editors’ use. But a huge grey area is the question of personal liability for individuals.

If a journalist (or any other employee, for that matter) claims in their Twitter profile that the views expressed are private not those of their employer (a standard disclaimer) where does that place them if someone sues them personally over their tweets?

It would take a particularly generous proprietor to cover the legal expenses of their employee who has distanced their private comments so clearly from their work role. It would likely leave them high and dry, with their own house and savings on the line, defending a legal action over a tweet, blog or other posting.

Despite my long experience as a journalist and academic, I made a serious error in this very story commissioned by The Australian. It was only noticed by an astute sub-editor (copy editor) at the eleventh hour – saving the newspaper and myself significant embarrassment at the very least. Thank God for subs!

But the fact is that our private blogs and tweets do not have the expert eye of a copy editor scanning them pre-publication – which can leave us personally liable for our words.

That’s something worth pondering very carefully before we press that ‘Send’ button.

———

Media twitters as Murdoch fronts Leveson

The Weekend Australian, April 28, 2012, p. 12

MARK PEARSON

THERE was a virtual sideshow alley to the circus of Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson media inquiry in London – coverage of the event on Twitter.
The topic #rupertmurdoch trended briefly at 7th place worldwide on the social media network, remarkable given discussion was also running at #leveson, #NOTW and #hacking.
It augurs well for a future for journalism that the appearance of an important public figure at a judicial inquiry could hold its own in the Twittersphere with the rapper 2 Chainz, a reality program on teenage pregnancy and the hashtag #APictureOfMeWhenIWas.
The Twitter feed offered a warts-and-all view of the medium as a source of information and informed opinion on news and current affairs.
It also raises issues of relevance to the self-regulation of journalists’ ethical behaviour when democratic governments are proposing statutory media controls in the converged environment.
Frequent Twitter users are accustomed to the extremities of opinion expressed in 140 characters on controversial issues.
The very “social” nature of the medium means that the streaming commentary is not dissimilar to what you would hear from a crowd gathered around a pub television watching a major sports event or a breaking news event.
You get a smorgasbord of views, quips, snide remarks, venom, puns, one-liners and references to a whole lot more, often in the form of links or photos.
With retweets you can then get the “Chinese whispers” effect, as facts are massaged or adapted to fit the character count down the grapevine.
Journalists are supposed to offer audiences some meaning in the midst of this mess.
For journalism and media organisations to stand out from the crowd they need to be the source of reliable, verified and concise information and opinion based on proven facts – something we used to call “truth”.
This week’s coverage of the Murdoch appearance demonstrated that some prominent journalists seem to have formed the view that Twitter is so different a medium that they have licence to ignore some of the foundation stones of their ethical codes.
Murdoch’s appearance elicited a blood sports style of sarcasm from critics from rival organisations, most notably at the ABC and Crikey.
Crikey’s Stephen Mayne might argue that readers would expect his Twitter feed to reflect his years of confronting Murdoch at News Corporation annual general meetings. Fair enough.
But does that excuse his tweet suggesting counsel assisting Leveson ask Murdoch about his marriages and fidelity “to test whether he really agrees that proprietors deserve extra scrutiny”?
Surely it was that kind of tabloid privacy intrusion that prompted the whole sorry saga. Which was Mayne’s point, I guess, in “an eye for an eye” kind of way.
Of course, News Limited journalists are not ethical saints in their use of Twitter, but on this issue they were in defensive mode.
Many prominent News columnists do not have active Twitter accounts, but even The Australian’s Media team chose not to engage on this important international media issue.
The Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand showed that, in the Twittersphere, sarcasm is often the preferred line of defence: “Can’t wait until Rupert Murdoch resumes speaking at the Leveson inquiry. I haven’t known what to write for 10 minutes.”
News journalists can hardly look to their boss for leadership in seeking to be unbiased in their Twitter commentary.
Murdoch himself posted to his @rupertmurdoch handle on March 30: “Proof you can’t trust anything in Australian Fairfax papers, unless you are just another crazy.”
Amid the snipes and counterattacks there is a whole lot of banter too – journalists doing the virtual equivalent of talking in the pub after work.
It might be gratifying, clubby and intellectually stimulating, but is a very public media space the place to be doing it?
What message does this send the audiences who follow these journalists on Twitter because of their connection to their respective masthead?
Most offer the standard “views expressed here are my own” rider on their Twitter profiles.
But is that really enough, when beside that they trumpet their journalistic position and employer organisation?
It is symptomatic of a broader problem of corporate social media risk exposure that has triggered an industry of social media policy writing, in the wake of the harsh lessons for McDonald’s and Qantas when hostile customers converted their promotional hashtags to #bashtags in public relations disasters.
But in journalism it’s more complex, because reporters are encouraged to use social media for establishing and maintaining contacts, sourcing stories and engaging with their audiences.
Journalism should be all about transparency, so many would argue it does no harm for readers to know what a reporter really thinks about an issue, particularly in a converged postmodern world where objectivity is supposedly dead.
It might well be, but the ethical codes still speak of fairness, accuracy and respect for the rights of others.
And those very codes are meant to be followed by journalists and their organisations in their mainstream reporting.
Sadly, they might soon face a statutory tribunal and penalties for their unethical actions.
They can’t have it both ways. News organisations cannot sell themselves to readers as impartial, authoritative sources of news and informed commentary when on Twitter their journalists are either breaking their codes or staying mute about an important international news event involving their boss.
The citizenry deserves better if we are to rebuild its confidence in journalism as an important democratic institution.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Social media legal risk: Are you ‘red alert’ on the @journlaw 6-point scale?

By MARK PEARSON

It was only in planning, researching and writing my book ‘Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued’ that I started to think about various levels of legal risk in the use of social media.

The book was never aimed to substitute for expert legal advice, but is designed for the serious blogger or social media user who wants to know the main areas of risk – basically when to sound the alarm bells so they either refrain from pressing that ‘publish’ or ‘send’ button or see a lawyer before doing so.

I have thought more about this, and the level of social media literacy in the community, and have developed these six-point lists to identify the levels of social media legal risk users and their organisations might be facing.

Looking at the lists, I feel my book is mainly targeted at Levels 1-4 in each category – individuals and organisations needing basic knowledge of social media legal risks to help avoid complete disasters and to blog, post and tweet with confidence – on legal advice when needed.

No such list is perfect of course, and I would welcome your suggestions for improvement either as comments to the blog below or as tweets citing my handle ‘@journlaw’.

So here they are, open for your comment:

Individuals

Level 1 (highest risk) RED ALERT! –Totally ignorant of the legal risks of social media and reckless in your use of it

Level 2 – Blissfully ignorant of the legal risks of social media but basically cordial, polite and well meaning in your social media interactions

Level 3 – Vaguely aware of the legal risks of social media but happy to tweet and post regardless

Level 4 – Aware enough of the legal risks of social media to show some caution in your use of social media and to know when to seek legal advice. (Suffering the ‘legal chill’ factor through fear of risks.)

Level 5 – Fully expert in social media legal risks and strategies and aware enough of your rights and defences to be bold in your expression

Level 6 (lowest risk) – Legally qualified and up to date with media law and the numerous emerging additional laws affecting social media use internationally.

Organisations

Level 1 (highest risk) RED ALERT! – ‘Twit What?’ Still in the 20th century with no social media policy (or many other policies for that matter) and employees can post whatever they like with no distinction between their corporate and private roles

Level 2 – Reasonable corporate communication policies hopefully applicable to, but not yet expressly incorporating, social media use.

Level 3 – Good corporate communication policies and a series of directives on social media use forming a good platform for a social media policy which has not yet been created.

Level 4 – A specific social media policy covering the main bases, but developed by HR department without expert legal input and lacking organisational follow-through with training and management awareness.

Level 5 – A specific social media policy developed on legal advice, but lacking in a key aspect such as currency or in-house training and awareness.

Level 6 (lowest risk) – Fully developed, monitored and routinely updated social media policy, with expert legal, HR and employee input, allowing for active but sensible social media presence with a clear firewall between employees’ private and corporate use. Regular training and briefing of management and staff on policy and changes.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Why I just wrote my last #LinkedIn recommendation

The trendy online reference seems flawed – both professionally and legally.

By MARK PEARSON

I see it as an important responsibility of my position as a professor to act as a referee for my former students and colleagues when they are job hunting.

I stopped writing formal general references many years ago because the practice seemed to have lost almost all credibility with employers.

Instead, I now agree to be a ‘referee’ and will only write a formal reference when an employer requests one.

But over the past couple of years I have been getting more requests for ‘recommendations’ from my connections on the social-professional network LinkedIn.

Not wanting to offend my former students and colleagues, I have obliged. Until now. I’ve investigated it further and have just written my final LinkedIn recommendation.

There are all the standard HR reasons why such recommendations are not worth a pinch of salt: they are time consuming, too general, and always glowing.

In 2009, Silicon Valley web strategist Jeremiah Owyang described LinkedIn recommendations as ‘puffery’.

“When I see recommendations on LinkedIn, my alarm goes off,” he blogged.

“I know most are not objective.”

LinkedIn responded to his criticisms on their official blog, with Adam Nash highlighting the benefits that can come from recommendations. He claimed the process could be mutually rewarding for the recommender and recommendee.

Perhaps so, but others have explored the employment law issues of the practice.

Employment attorney Shay Zeemer Hable offers a host of reasons why such references are fraught in labor law – with claims of defamation and unfair dismissal heading the list.

“Every discrimination plaintiff seeks to prove his employer is lying about the reason for the firing,” he writes.

“As a result, savvy attorneys will search the Internet for any comment that is inconsistent with the company’s official message about the reason for the termination.

But the area that concerns me most is defamation.

It’s not because of the risk of defaming the person you are recommending. My understanding is that they have to approve your recommendation before posting it, so I can’t imagine someone letting a disparaging comment slip through.

My concern is more with the impact of a glowing LinkedIn recommendation on the defamation defence you need to protect your harsh comments in the real reference you give later.

What happens if you later contradict your original glowing recommendation in your frank verbal or written advice to the employer when they contact you about this person you have recommended?

Australian law provides a strong qualified privilege defence for the negative job reference -restricted to those who have a genuine legal interest in knowing the your truthful opinion about a prospective employee.

But, as the Legal Services Commission of South Australia explains, it requires the ‘publisher’ – he or she who has written the reference – to have acted in good faith and without malice. You also need to believe in the truth of the material you are providing about the individual.

That could be damaged in a major way if the plaintiff can point to your contradictory glowing recommendation on LinkedIn, particularly if it covers the same aspects of their character.

A court would be hard pressed to find you have acted in good faith if you have offered conflicting versions of your opinion about the employee in separate ‘publications’. Exactly when were you giving your honest opinion?

I might be drawing a long bow here – and perhaps some readers can point me to some cases where this has been tested – but for the moment I certainly won’t be writing any more LinkedIn recommendations, and I will be directing my colleagues and students to this blog to read my reasons.

I’d be interested to hear your views.

© Mark Pearson 2011

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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