Ten Things Politicians and the Rest of Us Should Know About the Law and Social Media

In the last few years social media has irrevocably changed our lives. Some of the change is good, and some of the change is bad. Social media brings people together and facilitates familial, social and business relationships. As with all technology, or anything else in life, common sense and good judgment are essential. Without common sense and good judgment, social media can be harmful, and it can have dire social, financial and legal consequences.


In my law practice I have seen or heard about many instances where people have used poor judgment. When poor judgment goes viral, watch out. The following is a list of ten things you may want to consider before you post, tweet or video.

1. The things you say may have legal consequences: Be careful what you say about people on Facebook, Twitter or other forms of social media. The 1st Amendment gives us freedom of speech, but this is not an unfettered right. If you utter damaging untruths about a person, you may be liable for defamation. Slander is spoken defamation, and libel is written defamation. I recently read an article about a woman who went on Craigslist to post a rant about a contractor. Contractor sued her for libel and won. She lost twice because she was not pleased with the work, and she had to pay the contractor for her tirade.


2. Get permission before using pictures, articles, videos or content written by someone else: Using a person’s or corporation’s pictures, articles or other intellectual property without permission may be copyright infringement. To illustrate, someone came to me with a demand letter. The letter demanded hundreds of dollars for using an image from the internet without permission. This person is probably liable for copyright infringement. Even if she is not, it will cost her money to hire a lawyer.

3. Do not say or write anything on a social media site you do not want repeated: Be careful about what you say and when you say it. There are numerous examples of employers seeing Facebook posts where people have said they never “work” at their job; then the employer fires the employee. Also, who can forget the “Alabama Tea-bagger” You Tube video or the video of David Hasselhoff shirtless and muttering to himself while eating a massive cheeseburger?

4. Be careful about the pictures you post: Anthony Weiner demonstrated how one ill advised tweet can ruin a career. Smart phones make people do dumb things.

5. Do not use trademarks or copyrighted material without permission: It is against the law to use a trademark without permission. Examples of trademarks include McDonald’s golden arches and Allstate’s good hands. Businesses have spent millions of dollars to develop trademarks, and they fiercely protect them. Unless you have permission, do not use a trademark. On a related note, assume everything written, spoken or on video is copyrighted. This means someone else or a corporate entity owns it.

6. Watch out for spammers: Be wary of spammers on Facebook and other social media outlets. They may be trying to steal your identity. We have all seen “Tweet-bots” and “Facebook-bots,” so delete them as friends or followers. Better yet, never accept them as friends or followers.

7. Refrain from giving TMI: Some people chronicle their entire lives on Facebook. It is pitiful, boring and dangerous. Do you think it is a good idea to post you will be in Mexico for ten days? You might as well erect a neon sign over your house saying “break into me, and steal my new flat screen TV.” In addition, this exposes you to identity theft and blackmail.

8. Assume what you say never goes away: The internet is vast, and things said on the internet never go away. Youthful indiscretions now remain in a state of virtual perpetuity. Social media is a treasure trove for divorce attorneys. Can you imagine how quickly the “Cain Train” would have been derailed if Facebook had existed twenty years ago?

9. Police catch criminals by reading their Facebook pages all the time: Criminals like to brag, and they often do so on Facebook. Police know this, and it makes their jobs easier. If you are a criminal, refrain from posting your exploits on social media.

10. Assume people Google you and look at social media about you: I look people up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media all the time. What people say on social media outlets says a lot about them. Before you post a drunken picture from your bar crawl, think twice. A current or future employer may not like it.

When in doubt use common sense and good judgment. If you do, you should be fine.

Read more from Michael Wells here.

Image: I Can Has Cheezburger

14 Replies to “Ten Things Politicians and the Rest of Us Should Know About the Law and Social Media”

  1. Thank you, Mr. Wells.

    Half a century and a century ago, moms used to advise kids: Never put anything in writing you don’t want the whole world to know. That was good advice even when you were writing in what you thought was a locking diary that you kept in what you thought was a locking drawer. That goes exponentially now, especially if you want to engage in anything from politics to polemics. Your advice is well given!

  2. Excellent points. Points we all should remember. I need to find a way to cover my facebook posts and stop calling Boehner a fraud on twitter

  3. I would take it a step further and say that if you’re not a “Good Christian” straight white male and you resist the drive towards theocracy, you probably should consider using a pseudonym and take a few steps to conceal your identity. Even a little uncertainty could prevent some “Good Christian” from causing you harm.

    I learned that lesson years ago… when I was internet stalked for months by a “Good Christian” who was enraged because I said you could be Christian and accept evolution – and then didn’t back down when he attacked me. That stalking, by the way, included some pretty wild threats and he did find out my email (no longer used), my address and phone number – which he posted. That’s scary (especially since someone DID torch my workshop after a letter supporting evolution in the schools).

    Then there are the corporations…

  4. I’d add to go ahead and use pseudonyms for yourself and when referring to family members, especially kids. As A Walkaway’s experience shows, you just don’t know what’s out there.

    I’d take out #9, though. Monitoring Facebook and Twitter is a whole lot easier than working up a Christian Burial Speech.

    Still, I can’t believe the number of ordinary non-patients I see posting about smoking pot. It ain’t legal yet, folks. Common sense is still in short supply.

  5. I refuse to live my life in fear. I stand by what I write. I swore to defend the Constitution. That oath still holds.

    I will not let this medium be governed by the old ways of doing business. I will not trade my freedom for a little ‘safety.’

    Don’t let them hold your family hostage.
    Don’t let them bully you.
    If you don’t fight them now, those children you are trying to protect will not learn to stand up to bullies and will have to clean up our craven mess. We’ve seen what acquiescence and silence gets us. (Bush, Cheney = war criminals)

    Use social media against them. They are trying to use it to silence us.

    I remember my media law classes.

    Slander and libel are difficult to prove. The ‘equal playing field’ of social media and, ironically, Citizens United, make proving harm difficult.

    Democracy isn’t for sissies, folks. Either fight. or surrender.

  6. The more I think about this, the more it sounds like a right wing attempt to suppress 1st amendment rights.

    “Don’t tell anyone we do bad things!”
    “Don’t tell anyone you agree/disagree!”
    “Be afraid of the internet!”

    If they are afraid of it, do it more!!!!

  7. Using a pseudonym isn’t giving up. A little common sense isn’t giving up.

    Unless you’ve faced their ire personally and paid the price, I’m not so sure you should be telling those of us who HAVE what to do or not do. It’s one thing to speak your peace in public, but it’s another thing entirely when you do so knowing that you will get badly hurt for doing so. The thing is, people aren’t (as a general rule) aware of just how dangerous it is, for instance, to oppose creationism and support the teaching of evolution. That is a good reason why some common sense rules should be suggested.

    The people we face are monsters trying to pass as “good people”. I think a lot of us know intimately the importance and cost of freedom of speech, and don’t need a lecture about it.

  8. Uh… so I shouldn’t warn people how vicious and dangerous the dominionists really are? So I shouldn’t tell them that those “Good Christians” are not only capable of murder, arson, torture, and other hideous things but have done them?

    I’ve experienced internet stalking – months of it. It’s not fun. Some common sense “rules” are necessary, and people don’t realize what they open themselves up to when they don’t put at least a little bit of a buffer between them and the nutcases. I learned from my mistake years ago, and if someone else learns from my mistakes (for instance, trusting “Good Christians” or using my real name on the internet), well, then maybe I can salvage a tiny bit of good from the bad.

    You don’t like the warning or my telling like it is, too bad.

  9. Ms. Ryan, you have to be living in a fairly enlightened urban environment to be so blunderfuck stupid about what it’s like for those of us who don’t. We use screen names exactly so we can go on advocating and exposing. Until you’ve faced the stuff we’ve faced, don’t you dare call anyone a coward.

    I reiterate: you are blunderfuck stupid.

  10. These points are good advice for people online. I have seen this and other lists like this one and trust me, its wise to consider what he says. Its not directed at a political party or group

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