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Settlement is a reminder to watch your words

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Jury says man’s attempt at free speech hurt judge’s reputation

The Internet does a lot of good things for a lot of people.
It’s an amazing way to connect with people around the world without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home.
It’s a never-ending source of information, a way to find out something about just about anything you can imagine.
It’s a place that can inspire love, creativity, diversity, knowledge and friendship.
But it’s also a place where things can very quickly get out of hand.
For many years there have been conversations in households throughout this nation, in classrooms and courtrooms—and in government legislating bodies—about what is protected as Freedom of Speech online and what violates law and standards.
For the past two years this has been the focus of a pending court case right here in Brunswick County.
In 2010, media strategist Edward Rapp took to the Internet to express his displeasure with Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis.
Rapp was displeased with Lewis campaigning for a candidate for the May primary.
That candidate happened to be Lewis’ godfather Bill Rabon, who went on to win a Senate seat from challenger Bettie Fennel.
In some online postings Rapp claimed Lewis violated a judicial code of conduct by campaigning.
The problem with his claim, however, was it wasn’t true. Lewis was, in fact, allowed to do exactly what she was doing.
The matter wasn’t resolved outside the courtroom, and it took years before Rapp admitted publicly he had made a mistake.
But by then, at least in the eyes of a Brunswick County jury, the damage to Lewis’ reputation had already been done.
That damage is now going to take the form of $105,000 payout to the judge.
The lesson here for Rapp is a pricey one, but it has an even broader picture for the posting-public—you can’t say whatever you want just because you’re online.
Online postings are not automatically protected by freedom of speech. If a victim can successfully prove the information is defamatory and false, and that it caused an injury to the victim’s reputation, there’s a chance the poster may have to pay up for those claims.
In other words, use caution regarding whatever you say—slander—or whatever you write—libel.
It’s a slippery slope figuring out where First Amendment privileges end and defamation begins. Walk a fine line or be ready to back up whatever it is you say—even if you think no one else is watching.