Editor’s note: This is part of a two-part package. Read about how a #MeToo related libel lawsuit his torn apart Utah’s small acroyoga community here.
The number of defamation lawsuits filed in Utah is on the rise — doubling in the last year.
A review of these cases shows that almost all have one thing in common: The speech that someone claims is salacious, untrue or harmful was posted on social media.
Whether it was a one-star review for a bed-and-breakfast posted online by a scorned neighbor to lawsuits over Facebook posts made by begrudged tenants complaining about potholes in their mobile home community, Utahns are increasingly going to court over online speech.
But one University of Utah law professor says there’s also been a unique social media phenomenon that has had a profound impact on defamation lawsuits: the #MeToo movement.
The impromptu social media movement began in late 2017, as women and men across the country posted online and shared their stories of sexual harassment or assault. It was intended to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem of harassment and assault women face but often don’t discuss.
Utah court data shows that 19 defamation or libel lawsuits were filed in 2017. The #MeToo movement started that October. By 2018, the number of lawsuits had doubled to 38 cases.
And those are just the cases that made it to courthouses — it’s unknown how many threats or intent to sue letters were exchanged because of social media interactions.
Professor Randy Dryer said it’s not surprising that some of those accused of inappropriate actions would sue, or threaten to sue.
But what’s been surprising, he said, is the uptick in women who are filing lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators if the accused fires back by calling her a liar.
“Libel suits have become a legal tool to seek justice against their perpetrator,” Dryer said, noting there may be no other legal recourse for women if they are disclosing older allegations where the deadline for criminal charges has passed.
No one who claims to be a sexual abuse victim in Utah has filed a libel lawsuit in recent years, according to a review of court records.
But there have been several cases filed over #MeToo allegations.
One involves an acroyoga instructor suing a woman who says he sexually assaulted her. He’s also named six other defendants in his lawsuit — all members of the niche yoga community — who posted online about the allegations.
Another lawsuit was filed by a Utah couple who accuse two of their children of lying about being sexually abused when they were young. Their son spread lies while speaking on a podcast, they claim, and a daughter said during a #MeToo march that she had been victimized.
Yet another case involves a man who sued a Utah college student after she posted on Twitter that she was raped and tagged her alleged attacker in the post.
While the #MeToo movement has affected the legal world, Dryer said social media as a whole has revitalized the libel lawsuit industry altogether as it becomes a mainstay in current culture. And people often post on Twitter or Facebook, he said, without thinking it through.
“Once you post something online,” he said, “you lose control of that information. It can be reposted or forwarded. Social media by definition is global and instant. It can become viral in a short period of time.”
And while there’s the temptation to hastily post, Salt Lake City attorney Jeff Hunt said there’s also been an increase in lawsuits as more value is put on our digital footprint online. Reputations, and businesses, can be at stake.
Hunt, who specializes in media and defamation law, said people often don’t realize that they aren’t always protected by free speech laws when they post something about another person. If what they are saying is not true, he said, it can open them up to the possibility of a lawsuit.
“I think a lot of people think the internet is a license to defame,” he said. “The immediacy and the impulsiveness of social media [encourages] people to throw stuff out there that they would never say face-to-face to someone or put in writing.”
Hunt’s advice to people who post online? Take a breath.
“Think before you push the send button,” he said. “Don’t act impulsively. Don’t act in the heat of the moment. If you are going to make a statement about someone else or a business, make sure you get your facts right. Make sure that what you’re publishing is truthful information.”