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Should There Be Parental Liability For A Child's Facebook Post?

On October 10, a three judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals handed down a decision that has far-reaching ramifications for parents, kids and the Internet. In this age of cyber-bullying, the question of where to place blame and assess liability has been a difficult one. The issue of parental liability for children's actions--and in particular, parental responsibility for children's actions online--is a confusing one, with conflicting messages of what parents should or should have known, and whether that knowledge even matters when it comes to liability.

No longer. In the case before the Georgia court, a seventh grader had created a fake Facebook profile of a fellow seventh grade student. The profile was doctored with the "fat app" which distorts people into grotesquely fat shapes. The profile also included other offensive content. When the student's parents found out, they reported the profile to the school, and the creator of the profile was given two days of in-school suspension. Purportedly, his parents grounded him for a week. But the offending profile remained online for eleven more months. It was not until the parents of the bullied student contacted Facebook asking that the page be deactivated that it was finally taken down. The parents then sued the parents of the perpetrator.

The trial court dismissed the claims of negligence against the parents. In its partial reversal of the trial court's decision, the appellate court held that while the parents could not be held liable for the initial post, they could be liable for harm caused by the eleven months the profile remained online. The reason: the parents had no knowledge of the original post, so they were not negligent, but once the parents were put on notice of the offending profile, they could be found negligent for leaving it online for eleven months. That question will go to trial.

The decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals stops short of holding parents accountable for everything their children post online by requiring the element of knowledge for culpability. In the case at hand, the court noted that the parents had made no effort to view the offending posts, or to even compel their son to delete them after finding out about them. The question then becomes: would a reasonable parent go online to see if the post is still up and remove it if it is?

The attorney for the parents of the perpetrator vows to appeal the appellate ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. Like the court case, the question of parental liability for children's online activities is not going away anytime soon.

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