“Fans of Facebook and the social media may inadvertently find themselves in hot water when it comes to what they post on the various media,” says Danie Strachan, partner at law firm Adams & Adams.
“Facebook walls featured specifically in a recent case in the South Gauteng High Court,” says Strachan.
The case revolved around the sale of a building which belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and which Glory Divine World Ministries (GDM) was opposed too.
In this instance an individual from GDM took to Facebook and then proceeded to post and allow comments to be made about the matter. Subsequently, the church took the individual to court to stop him from making comments.
“During the case the court found that the individual was quite capable of regulating access to the Facebook wall and censoring postings thereto,” says Strachan.
The judge noted that people who make postings on a Facebook page have the benefit of anonymity. As such, if they make defamatory, inciting, inflammatory or unlawful publications on a page, they usually cannot be taken to court because they are unidentified. In this instance the judge found that the individual, on the other hand, had made the Facebook page available to the public and could therefor be identified.
According to Strachan the judge compared the situation to someone who makes available a noticeboard in a corridor on which persons can attach pieces of paper. “The judge determined that the person responsible for the notice board had an obligation to take down pieces of paper which are shown to be unlawful in content or impact.”
In this case, the judge found that the postings of Facebook were not inflammatory and did not incite any unlawful action.
However, according to Strachan the case makes an important point. “Users should exercise caution when they make walls and similar social media forums available to their friends or other users to post on. If the postings are defamatory, unlawful or discriminatory, it is the person who owns the page who must take down the postings.”
The judge also pointed out that it would be a gross invasion of privacy to make an individual’s personal contact details on a public forum such as Facebook. However, this would not be the case if the individual’s details are already publicly available.
“This also has clear implications when it comes to the workplace, and in a business context,” says Strachan. “Employees should be careful what they say about their employer on their social media pages – in several cases employees have been dismissed for making derogatory remarks about their employers. In addition to this businesses should make every effort to control their social media accounts. This is to ensure that the accounts are not used for unlawful purposes, such as making defamatory remarks. It also highlights the importance for businesses to put policies in place before launching social media in the workplace.”