As noted in our first post, almost 90% of the companies polled in a 2014 survey indicated that they were using social media for business purposes. A recent Massachusetts district court opinion serves as a useful reminder that employers should be careful about their employees’ social media posts, as the traditional legal principles of defamation apply in such circumstances.
In Feld v. Conway, the plaintiff arranged for her horse to be shipped to a farm to serve as a companion horse. The horse, however, instead was sent to a horse auction and (likely) slaughtered. This bizarre mix-up became a hot topic on the blogosphere, and the defendant eventually weighed in by tweeting the following about the plaintiff: “Feld . . . you are f—ing crazy.”
The plaintiff’s lawsuit claimed that her professional reputation was ruined by the alleged defamatory statement, which prospective clients would find when searching for her name online. The court, however, granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the case. It reasoned that the tweet, in this context, did not intend to state actual facts about the plaintiff’s mental state; rather, it was just an opinion criticizing her.
- Although the Feld case did not involve a claim against an employer, it is a reminder that traditional defamation concepts (and defamation defenses) apply to the use of social media. Because employers are vicariously liable for employee conduct that is within the course and scope of their employment—which very likely could include tweeting from the company’s account or from a personal account on business-related issues—employers should take steps to ensure that employee tweets or other posts are not defamatory.
- Employers should train their employees to be diligent about all social media posts, particularly posts that may express negative views about others.