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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Mom Can’t Sue Station for Cyberbullying Story

(CN) - The mother of a teenager accused of using Facebook to cyberbully other teens cannot pursue defamation claims against a Panama City, Fla. TV news station that reported on the activity, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak dismissed Lisa Jeter's claims for defamation and defamation by implication against Gray Television Group Inc., known locally as WJHG-TV, for a series of stories based on the felony cyberstalking charges filed against Jeter's daughter, "K.J.," and other teens in 2012.

Police accused K.J. and three others of bullying fellow teenagers by posting derogatory comments to a Facebook page called "Panama City's Trashiest."

They also maintained K.J. was one of the administrators of the site. According to court documents, posts included "vulgar language, descriptions of alleged sexual activity, even a photo of someone committing an act of bestiality with a goat." One post made a reference to "a bullet in the head."

Florida law defines cyberstalking as engaging "in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose." Aggravated cyberstalking adds the element of "credible threat."

Those convicted of aggravated cyberstalking can receive up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office dropped the charges after prosecutors could not prove substantial emotional distress in the victims. Also, at least one victim wanted charges dismissed.

In July, Jeter filed a complaint against the TV station, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen and investigator Craig B. Romans in the Bay County (Fla.) Circuit Court. It was later removed to the federal court in Panama City.

However, Florida law has a high bar for defamation claims, especially against the news media. A defamation claim must show "publication," "falsity," "actual damages," a defamatory statement, and the accused must have acted "at least negligently on a matter concerning a private person." Defamation by implication is when the accused "juxtaposes a series of facts so as to imply a defamatory connection between them, or creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts."

In addition, Florida news media have a "qualified privilege" to report on information from government sources and do not need to investigate the accuracy of those official statements. That privilege extends to defamation by implication claims as well, judge Smoak wrote.

Jeter argued the TV station made six defamatory statements, though she only defended two of the allegations in her Memorandum in Opposition. First, Jeter took exception to the TV station's assertion that her daughter could be charged as an adult. However, Florida law would have allowed prosecutors to charge her as an adult if there was enough evidence, the judge wrote.

Secondly, Jeter criticized the TV station's paraphrasing of investigators' claims that the teenagers used the Facebook page to "humiliate and defame dozens of Bay County teens." Jeter said there was no way to prove "dozens" of teens were victimized by the page. Though the sheriff's office did not give a specific number of victims, Judge Smoak wrote, "the law does not require perfect accuracy, only that the publication be substantially true." The charges against Jeter's daughter and the other accused teens did depend on multiple victims, so the basic nature of the statement is true, he wrote.

Cyberbullying has become a big issue in Florida. Earlier this year, Tricia Norman filed a lawsuit against the Polk County School Board and a property owner after her daughter, Rebecca Sedwick, committed suicide by jumping off an abandoned tower after receiving vulgar messages via social media. Sedwick's death prompted Florida lawmakers to introduce new laws against bullying, but they died in the legislative session.

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