Malta: Social Media Could Get You On The Wrong Side Of The Law

Be careful what you say online. When you post something on the internet, you are 'publishing' and are therefore subject to the same laws as traditional publishers. Making comments on Facebook, Twitter, newspaper portals and other social networks can land you in a legal minefield if you are not extremely careful. With the increasing use of social media, there is also an increasing need to think before you speak, text, post, and even Facebook your friend.

Maltese lawyers are seeing an increasing number of cases dealing with social media. Most of us accept that 'traditional media' should be subject to the law to some degree, in order to protect peoples' reputations and from spreading hatred since their significant audience and 'authoritative' voice make an impact.  The same should apply to social media although we might not have expected such rules to ever apply to ourselves.

Now the majority of people are not aware of, or do not understand, the laws surrounding what they can and cannot say online, and do not realise that posting on the internet is not the same as talking to your mates in a pub. People do not realise how risky it is to make throwaway comments on social media sites. It is easy to get carried away when you are sitting in the comfort of your own home or behind your mobile screen. But there are serious repercussions when baseless allegations are made.

A survey conducted by one of the big global law firms at the end of last year found that a frightening number of respondents, who were mainly between 21 to 28 years old, had no idea of the legal consequences of going online.

There is a fine line between when an opinion becomes a statement that breaks the law. This has been demonstrated in the debacle case of McAlpine vs Bercow and by the ever-growing number of shocked citizens who have been prosecuted for certain posts on Facebook and Twitter. What most people do not realise is that when comments turn libellous, they will also have a civil or even criminal suit on their hands.

Online abuse and negativity is something we haven't really had to deal with before but it is becoming more and more of an issue and one where the law is becoming stricter.

High-profile cases that we have all read about do not help much either when it comes to working out what is and what is not acceptable in terms of the law. What is morally acceptable or decent is then another matter entirely. However, we cannot just punish people for holding opinions that we find offensive, no matter how distasteful.

But what do these recent cases – and the increasing likelihood of prosecution – mean for freedom of speech? And at what point does a statement become law-breaking?

That is not to excuse, agree with or justify those who post abusive, distasteful, hatred-inciting or discriminatory statements online. But it does raise an interesting debate when it comes to freedom of speech.

Generally, the advice when posting online is to use caution and restraint.

Yet does the fear of prosecution now mean we will be losing our identity and personalities? Social media is supposed to be a place for us to express ourselves and those that signed up to any social platform probably did not expect to have to worry about any legal ramifications of what they are saying before every post.

Worrying about what to post also goes beyond the legal issues. Take the case of devout Christian Adrian Smith, who was demoted at work with a 40% pay cut as he posted his opinion about gay marriage on his private Facebook page. Surely, not everyone agrees with his opinion, but should he have been punished for it? The courts thought not, and ruled that his employer was wrong to have punished him for the post.

The Adrian Smith case is one of thousands that should set you thinking over and above not giving vent when posting on social media.

What is your opinion? We would like to hear from you:

  • What do you think about the effects on freedom of speech?
  • When does a statement go beyond being distasteful to being illegal?
  • Should someone be prosecuted for an opinion, just because others find it offensive? 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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