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Legal matters – moderating message boards

6 Jul

I went to an excellent seminar last week on Social Media Law, led by David Banks. If I had to sum the message up in one sentence, it would be:

If you wouldn’t print it, don’t post it on social media.

Social media is publication. The same, historic laws apply to social media as they do to print. The courts are still working on how to apply them, but don’t presume that the online world is any more free than traditional publications. A personal Twitter account will not be protected by privacy law. Pictures are not public domain as soon as they go online. And yes, journalists will quote you and your students out of context. Content creators you are ‘borrowing’ from do track you down and sue. That covers the basics (have I put you off yet?).

If you are drawing up a social media policy and feel inspired to rock on down to your university legal support officer, make sure you cover:

  • Libel
  • Contempt
  • Copyright
  • Privacy
And please do seek legal advice. What follows is not a recommendation, I am not qualified to give legal advice, treat it as a heads-up!

Message boards

For me, the implications of libel law were especially interesting in relation to message boards. David described a case where Demon internet were successfully sued for libel when they failed to take down a post that had been reported to them. They hadn’t written the post, they hadn’t refused to take it down, they had just ignored him. The message is – you can be liable for other people’s posts, if you are aware of the content and you let it stay online. Libel laws punish not just the person who writes a comment, but everyone who re-publishes it.

You might say this is unfair, that only the person who made the comment is really at fault. But let that one go, we all know that allowing gossip to spread is wrong. This is where it really gets unfair – a claimant does not have to sue everyone involved, they can choose to only sue the one with the deepest pockets (NB the £250,000 legal costs of the claimant alone in that above case). So that troll on your message board never hears another word, but the university would be up to its eyeballs in expensive litigation.

Fortunately, David did have a suggestion to make for those of us who want to keep using message boards. Do not moderate comments before they go online. Once you have screened comments, you are responsible for everything. Similarly, if you, the message board owner, have been commenting within the online discussion, it will be clear that you have read and left the offending remarks in place. Instead, take a hands-off approach. Allow people to post, and build in a robust system for users to flag comments. Removal of reported posts should be swift and reliable. It would be helpful to have a policy on what is acceptable included in a user agreement.

It seems a shame to suggest that we, as providers, should not participate in the discussions we host. In the past I have been against moderating all comments before publications simply for the sake of speed, that users will go elsewhere if they cannot see an immediate post go up. However, I have also been very much in favour of joining in, and leaving up as many user comments as possible for everyone to learn from. I always believed that people would see who contributed what, and assign responsibility accordingly. The message board is a place where uninformed ideas can be exposed to critical view, and being able to participate allows an educator to contribute to this process. Unfortunately, I can now see that the law places different responsibilities on us, that in hosting a message board we cannot pretend to be at the same level as our users. We have the ability to control the whole board and so the law requires us to do so.

And if you are wondering when your comments are going to appear on this post…