Wis. Court Upholds Facebook Defamation

     (CN) – A Wisconsin man who posed as the father of his girlfriend’s child on Facebook is liable for his defamatory online comments, a state appeals court ruled.
     In 2010, John Beckett created a Facebook page under the name “Stephen Laughland II,” the name of a lecturer at several schools in the Milwaukee area, including Marquette University.
     Beckett then sent the real Laughland an email accusing him of “manipulating the system” and having a “total disregard for the financial freedoms this country provides,” according to court records.
     “There comes a time when people such as yourself get exposed,” Beckett added. “I want you to know that your day has come… I can say that some day soon, you will pay the price for your financial recklessness and dishonesty.”
     Less than three months later, a friend of Laughland told him that someone on Facebook had sent him a friend request in Laughland’s name. “It says horrible things about you,” the friend said.
     The Facebook page referred to Laughland as a “preying swindler,” despite being posted under his name, the court ruling states.
     “Since he knows so much about bank manipulation, Marquette must have believed that he was an excellent choice to teach Bank Management,” Beckett added on the Facebook page. Beckett later began posting as Laughland in the first person.
     “I wonder what my children think about having such a loser for a father,” he stated in March 2010.
     “I am not sure why more people have not caught on to the fact that I am a low-life manipulative person,” Beckett added in April 2010.
     Laughland thought the page had been created by Jean Placke, the mother of his child, as the two were involved in a custody battle. But he hired an attorney to investigate and learned that Beckett, who was Placke’s boyfriend, had created the page.
     Laughland sued Beckett for defamation in 2012. Beckett argued that his posts were based on facts in the public record and that they represented his opinions. He cited alleged online records about Laughland’s foreclosure and bankruptcy as the inspiration for creating a Facebook page to chastise him, according to the ruling.
     A Milwaukee County trial judge ruled in Laughland’s favor, not buying Beckett’s claim that he was performing a public service.
     “There was one and only motivation for this. I guess you can break it down into two,” Judge Christopher Foley wrote. “It was the ever lovable Miss Placke in an attempt to impress her and an attempt to run down in her eyes Mr. Laughland. You put all of that together and you’ve got the ill will, you’ve got the malice, you’ve got the defamatory statements, et cetera.”
     The lower court awarded Laughland a total of $25,000 in general and punitive damages.
     On appeal, Beckett continued to argue that the statements were not defamatory, but the Division I Wisconsin Court of Appeals disagreed in an opinion written by Judge Joan Kessler.
     “At trial, however, Beckett provided no evidence that the [foreclosure, bankruptcy and collection] claims made by the banks involved allegations of Laughland’s fraud, deceit or bank ‘manipulation,'” Kessler wrote for the appeals court’s three-judge panel.
     She added that Beckett’s statements were not protected opinions and that they harmed Laughland’s reputation.
     “The record establishes that Beckett’s comments were indeed viewed by third parties, as the page had six ‘friends.’ Beckett made comments implying that Marquette University was risking its reputation by employing Laughland,” the judge wrote. “All of the defamatory comments, placed on a social media page accessible to other social media users, and Beckett’s active efforts to solicit ‘friends,’ support the circuit court’s conclusion that Beckett intended to, and indeed did, lower Laughland’s reputation.”

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