ATLANTA (CN) - A student's parents may be liable for failing to stop their son's alleged defamation of a classmate on a Facebook page he created under her name, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled.
In May 2011, seventh-grader Dustin Athearn created a fake Facebook profile under the name of his classmate Alexandria Boston, with the help of a friend who supplied an email address and password for the Facebook account. Athearn created the profile on his home computer, using a picture he had taken of Boston, which he altered with a "Fat Face" application.
The information Athearn added to the unauthorized profile included graphically sexual and racist comments, references to Boston's purported homosexual orientation, and other offensive material. The profile also falsely stated that Boston was taking drugs for mental health disorders, as well as illegal drugs, according to the Oct. 10 ruling.
The account was then connected to more than 70 Facebook users via invites Athearn sent to Boston's classmates, teachers and family.
After Boston recognized the profile picture and suspected Athearn's involvement, her parents complained to the school's principal, who questioned Athearn and his friend. The students admitted they had created the fake profile and had posted on it for several days. "I chose Alex Boston because she followed me around and my friends did not like her and told her to leave me alone," Athearn claimed in a written statement.
The principal assigned the two students to in-school suspension for two days, and notified their parents via phone calls and disciplinary action forms, the ruling says.
The unauthorized Facebook page remained accessible to users until April 2012, when Facebook deactivated the account, shortly after Boston's parents sued Athearn and his parents in state court.
The Bostons, who sought damages for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claimed the Athearns made no efforts to view the defamatory posts or to compel their son to delete them after they found out about them.
The Cobb County Superior Court dismissed the Bostons' negligence claims against the parents, but the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed Friday, finding that a jury should determine whether the Athearns failed to supervise their son's use of the computer and Internet account relating to the alleged defamation.
Although the Athearns could not anticipate that their son would use the computer in a harmful way, once they found out about the creation of the fake profile, they had a duty to supervise his computer activities, the 15-page ruling states.
"While it may be true that Alex was harmed, and the tort of defamation had accrued, when even one person viewed the false and offensive postings, it does not follow that the Athearns' parental duty of reasonable supervision ended with the first publication," Judge John Ellington wrote for the court.
The false and offensive statements remained online for another 11 months, allowing more readers to access them, therefore a jury could find that the Athearns were responsible for part of the harm their son allegedly caused to his classmate, the three-judge panel concluded.
However, claims that the Athearns failed to take down the unauthorized Facebook page, which was created on their computer, were properly dismissed, because, according to Facebook, only the user who signed up for the password-protected account could disable the page, the ruling adds.