Online is Not Vegas. Central Valley Court Rules What Happens There – at least on MySpace – Doesn’t Stay There

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The Coalinga Recorder and the local namesake high school were vindicated after the Court of Appeals in the Fifth District ruled that the paper’s reprinting of a tirade from a “MySpace” page was not an invasion of the page owner’s privacy. The court found that “the article was available to anyone with Internet access.”

Turns out Cynthia Moreno wanted the world to know how much she despised her home town of Coalinga, a small rural city in the Central Valley area of California. Moreno’s “Ode to Coalinga” was posted on her MySpace page after she graduated high school and was attending UC Berkeley.

Cynthia’s high school principal happened upon it during the Ode’s 6-day reign of terror on her MySpace page and immediately forwarded it to an editor at the Coalinga Recorder. It was subsequently published in the Letters section.

The Ode did not sit well with the local folks who, according to the complaint filed by Moreno and her parents, began their own reign of terror on the Morenos (who still lived in Coalinga), threatening death, and firing shots at the house. Hatred was so fierce, the Moreno family business had to shut down because no one would patronize it. In fact, they had to leave town, and subsequently sued the paper, the parent publisher, and the school district for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In affirming the lower court’s decision to dismiss the “invasion of privacy” portion of the complaint, the Court noted, “Cynthia’s affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and, thus, opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material.” The court found unpersuasive Moreno’s argument that the girl never fully identified herself on the MySpace page in question, noting that her photograph and first name were sufficient to identify her as the author.

Practice Note: Increasingly, we are seeing postings on social networking sites being used in various ways in litigation. We are aware of several cases wherein a party has used a witness’ MySpace or FaceBook postings to impeach testimony. Companies may wish to consider policies regarding employee use of social media. As recently as today, according to CNET news an employee was fired for calling in sick (saying she needed to be in a dark room away from her monitor) and subsequently “FaceBooking” on the computer.

Personal Note: Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be (irresponsible) Tweeters! In addition to litigation, increasingly, college admissions directors are surfing the Internet to see if there are vast distinctions between what they are reading in applications and the actual person. Social networking is a fine way to stay connected and show one’s unique personality, but parents must teach their children to be responsible about what they post and who they befriend. Children should be advised that digital information doesn’t disappear simply because it’s old, or because they remove it. A screen shot can easily be taken of anyone’s public information, without knowledge of the posting party. What happens in cyberspace really does stay there forever.

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