Trinidadian court orders woman to pay compensation to family she insulted on Facebook

Farida Dawkins February 08, 2018
Port of Spain court in Trinidad

Many individuals use social media as a medium to vent their pet peeves and frustrations. With a few keystrokes, you can let the world know how you feel about any topic you desire. This luxury does come with a price though.  Your emotions may subside and you may even press delete nonetheless, your words are forever etched online and one Trinidadian woman is learning this the hard way.

Jenelle Burke was recently ordered by High Court judge justice Frank Seepersad to pay for defaming a family she posted scandalous comments about.

Burke wrote the inflammatory post after a fall out with the family members.  Burke claimed that the mother, father, daughter, and son were incestuous, the father was a rapist and slept with his stepson and daughter; Burke also stated that the daughter was involved in prostitution at her school.  She also posted the images and phone numbers of the family members. Whew.

Burke later refuted saying that she didn’t make the posts and deleted them as soon as she saw it on her timeline.  Nevertheless, Justice Seepersad was not impressed with her version of events. Her actions launched a full-fledged investigation from the Child Protection Unit; the mother also testified to debunk the claims made against her family.

Justice Seepersad was documented by Caribbean360 as saying: “It is difficult to fathom how any right-thinking member of society would contemplate to publish words such as those posted on the defendant’s Facebook account. Sadly, however, far too often, social media is used as a forum to engage in this type of irresponsible and cruel discourse.”

“This state of affairs cannot continue unabated and the Court therefore has elected to mould and apply the common law in a manner which gives some degree of protection to citizens. There is entrenched in local parlance the phrase, ‘You will pay for your mouth’. Given the technological revolution which now characterizes modern life, this traditional phrase has to be subject to an update and all social media account holders need to understand that they may now have to ‘pay for their posts’, if it is established that their posts are defamatory.”

He went on to say: “The reach and permanency of social media is such that extreme caution has to be exercised by its users. The law needs to be pellucid, so that all concerned must understand that social media use has to be engaged in a responsible way. Anonymity cannot obviate the need to be respectful of people’s rights and users cannot recklessly impugn a person’s character or reputation. Words in any form or on any forum matter, and must be used carefully and not impulsively.”

Justice Seepersad emphasized: A word of caution is also extended to those who knowingly republish or share posts containing defamatory content. There must be some measure of restraint if only to reconsider the accuracy or plausibility of truth in a post before its dissemination which is especially true of sensational and outrageous posts which can possibly cause irreparable harm.”

Although social media is not regulated, serious damage can be inflicted on the physical and mental well-being of individuals. Justice Seepersad concluded by informing the court: “Social media ought not to be viewed as an unregulated media forum and anyone who elects to express views or opinions on such a forum stands in the shoes of a journalist and must be subjected to the standards of responsible journalism which govern traditional media.”

The ramifications of Burke’s actions resulted in the first court ruling of its kind.  The institution of laws that place slanderous online posting under the same umbrella of defamation will definitely change the tone and the speed of what and how people post content.  Individuals will definitely think twice before clicking the send button.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: February 8, 2018


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