Social media and the ability to broadcast one’s opinions across the internet are raising many new issues in defamation law. A recent Tennessee case held that when a Facebook post and picture are posted together, they must be considered together and the communication should be analyzed in its entirety.
In Weidlich v. Rung, No. M2017-00045-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2017), defendant sued plaintiff for defamation over a post plaintiff made on Facebook. Plaintiff and defendant had both attended a heated school board meeting regarding the potential formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at their local high school. Defendant was in favor of the group, while plaintiff “expressed strong opposition to the formation.” During this time, plaintiff’s wife “made tentative plans to run for” the school board. At a subsequent meeting, defendant saw plaintiff’s vehicle in the parking lot. On the back of the vehicle, plaintiff had a sticker with the Confederate flag and the word “SECEDE;” a sticker with the words “God, Family, The South” next to another Confederate flag; and another sticker that said “The League of the South,” which Defendant testified was a hate group. Defendant took a picture of these stickers and posted it to her Facebook wall, along with the caption: “Free Bonus Prize. The Fisty Family are also white supremacist! We’ll need to keep this handy come election time.”
Plaintiff sued for defamation based on this Facebook post. The General Sessions Court ruled for defendant, finding that plaintiff “had been unable to establish damages.” In the trial court, plaintiff had a witness testify that the witness stopped using plaintiff’s mechanic shop and had spent around $7,000 using a different service provider. The trial court ruled for plaintiff and awarded him $7,000 in damages and $5,000 in attorney’s fees. In its order, the trial court found that the statement was defamatory, that it was made maliciously, and that at the time of posting neither plaintiff nor his wife were public figures. The Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.