Our Opinion: Kenly Police libel suit a timely reminder to choose words carefully

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Spreading rumors on social media — and maybe even alluding to them — can be costly.

Kenly Police Chief Josh Gibson and Officer Rayne Biggs are suing Terry Baker, a mayoral candidate and former Kenly police officer, accusing him of libel over a pointed post on his campaign Facebook page, according to a story in this week’s edition of The Kenly News.

The civil complaint filed Sept. 25 in Johnston County District Court claims that Baker “acted with actual malice” in publishing false statements alleging an affair between the chief and officer, the newspaper reports.

The “Terry Baker for Kenly Mayor” page on Facebook includes an Aug. 14 statement from Baker reading: “I am pro law enforcement and support honest, law abiding officers, not ones that lie to the North Carolina State Bureau Of Investigations [sic] and to the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office. I also do not support officers lieing [sic] to town officials as well as married supervisors having sexual relationships with subordinates.”

That statement quoted in The Kenly News remained posted to Baker’s Facebook page on Thursday. It’s unclear to us whether the post has been edited since the date it first appeared.

Libel occurs when “a false and defamatory statement about an identifiable person is published to a third party, causing injury to the subject’s reputation,” according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Public figures such as a police chief are required to prove actual malice, which means a defendant published a statement knowing it was false or acted with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.

It is possible to identify someone without naming him or her; the Kenly Police Department has only eight sworn officers, after all. We don’t know their respective marital statuses, but Gibson and Biggs will presumably argue that Baker’s Facebook post is understood as targeting them personally.

The post’s phrasing may seem obtuse — opposing supervisor-subordinate relationships in general hardly seems like leveling a sordid allegation against two individuals — but the circumstances surrounding Baker’s statement could have legal significance.

Gibson and Biggs are seeking in excess of $10,000 in damages plus interest and court costs, The Kenly News reports.

Unless the parties reach a settlement or the case is dismissed, it will be up to a judge to decide whether Baker’s suggestive statement constitutes libel. Defending the case could be expensive, and it’s likely that even if Baker wins, he loses.

Many people feel comfortable using social media pages in an informal, conversational and even careless way, airing personal gripes and passing along rumor and innuendo with great gusto. Facebook chatter may feel like a private conversation between friends, but the legal stakes are much higher.

“For purposes of a libel lawsuit, publication occurs when information is negligently or intentionally communicated in any medium, from a newspaper to a website, to someone other than the person defamed,” the RCFP explains.

“It’s only Facebook” is not a legal defense. Social media mutterings receive the same judicial scrutiny as a scathing screed published in The New York Times.

In February, a Facebook falsehood accusing a woman of causing her child’s death resulted in a $500,000 defamation settlement approved by a Buncombe County Superior Court judge.

The best way to avoid a libel or defamation suit is to think twice before typing. Don’t stretch the truth on your social media pages. Don’t spread gossip or rumors. Your screen name is your signature. If you post a questionable claim, you’re personally vouching for it.

Whether or not Terry Baker libeled the Kenly Police plaintiffs, the legal wranglings serve as a timely warning to all of us who use social media to choose our words with care.