Bystander liability and social networks
August 13, 2013 2:02 AM   Subscribe

Are we liable for what people on our social networks threaten to do should they follow through on those threats?

I am thinking of the Caleb Clemmons and Justin Carter cases, but also because a colleague who teaches at a different school told me about their new social media policy. They have been told to unfriend alumni due to liability concerns. Specifically, the school lawyers are concerned that if one of the alumni posts something publicly like "I am going to kill myself" and then does, the teacher and ultimately the school may be found liable for not intervening even if the teacher never saw that message.

Bigger picture, if one person can be found liable for not looking out for their friends' well-being (or friends' ill intention) based on their social media posts, presumably anyone on that person's friends' list could be held responsible.

Is this a serious concern? Is this a case of a lawyer and a school not understanding how social media and the law work? What are our legal responsibilities when somebody posts something that gives us pause?
posted by Joey Michaels to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's been a while since I studied torts, but bystander liability is liability TO bystanders (for instance, if you witnessed something emotionally distressing), not liability OF bystanders. I don't think there's any legal theory that says you're obligated to intervene. It's totally bizarre to me that a lawyer would say you shouldn't connect with someone on a social network because you might be liable for something they do, even if you haven't seen their post about it. There are lots of examples of people responding to posts confessing crimes by saying things like, "What! Are you serious?" but nothing happens to them, other than their posts get republished on the Internet and everybody shakes their head.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:34 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: From an American legal standpoint, chickenmagazine is correct in that we generally have no duty to intervene to protect someone from harm, be it self- or third-party-inflicted.

There are exceptions to this under the common law and various states' laws for people in special relationships. Teachers are a good example of someone charged with a special duty over those placed in their charge.

With that background, the answer to your question about social network liability has to be no. There is no general duty to be our brother's keeper; only where a special relationship exists will there be a duty. And I'm unaware of there being any sort of continuing duty after that relationship has ended (e.g., by a student's graduation).

Perhaps your colleague's school's attorney's risk management thought-process is that there could be an allegation that the problems were manifest and should have been acted on by the teacher while the special relationship continued, even though the harmful action took place after the relationship ended?
posted by resurrexit at 3:41 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Resurrexit makes a point, but my understanding is that individuals (such as Teachers, social workers, etc) have a reporting responsibility distinct from the relationship with the individual, The law here in Michigan doesn't seem to mention that there needs to be a teacher/student relationship, it only states that teachers are mandated reporters if they suspect child neglect/abuse.

Personally, as an individual that is a mandated reporter, I err on the safe side and report any suspected case of abuse/neglect, regardless of my professional relationship (or lack thereof) with the person involved.
posted by HuronBob at 4:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you talking about minors? "Alumni" is vague.
posted by spitbull at 4:37 AM on August 13, 2013

Response by poster: Alumni in this case means graduated and moved on to college, though I see how it could be interpreted as an alumni of a middle or elementary school.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:38 AM on August 13, 2013

The concern might be that the former student is reaching out to the teacher, but the teacher ignores it because it just looks like someone grousing on their own timeline.

Unfriending seems like an overreaction though. It seems like a lazy way to solve a problem that a well thought out policy would cover.
posted by gjc at 4:55 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yep, the folks upthread are right. There is almost never tort liability in a situation like this; the example always given in torts courses is that if Michael watches a little kid drowning in the pool and does nothing, Michael is not liable for the kid's death even where Michael is an Olympic swimmer.

There are only a few exceptions to the no-duty rule: (1) Michael had a special relationship with the kid, e.g., parent/child; (2) Michael created the peril, e.g., threw the kid into the pool; (3) Michael began a rescue attempt and then abandoned it.

About the "special relationship" - it's true that student/teacher is considered a special relationship, but the fundamental point undergirding liability in such relationships is that the party being held liable had some level of actual authority and control over the other. A former teacher no longer has actual authority over a student, so any argument urging otherwise strikes me as a losing one.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:20 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

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