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What Constitutes Unlawful Use of Social Media?

Almost daily we are hearing stories of social media and crime.

Examples include the well-publicized case of two Polk County girls charged with felony aggravated stalking after bullying another girl, mostly through a series of social media taunts. The bullied girl eventually took her own life after allegedly being harassed by the two.

There's the South Carolina man arrested after posting a message critical of a local sheriff's department on the department's website. Turns out the sheriff department found an outstanding warrant against him based on his post.

Then of course we often hear about sexual offenders and predators using social media to lure young people into meeting them in person.

All of this begs the question, what is unlawful use of social media?

It May Depend Who You Are

If your company has a policy that prohibits sharing "trade secrets" online, and you share confidential information that damages the company, you could be held accountable. On the other hand, many companies, including some very large ones, have had the courts tell them their social media policies were too far-reaching and therefore illegal.

Earlier this year laws enacted made it illegal for employers to ask for social media passwords when interviewing a prospective employee. They also cannot ask current employees for passwords or force them to "befriend" their bosses, effectively giving their employer access. This has been a big victory for those in the workforce who were finding their private lives invaded by employers.

In some states, sexual offenders are either prohibited from having social media sites, or must post on their sites that they are a sexual offender. In Florida, no such law presently exists. Florida law however, requires sexual offenders to register their online user names, instant messaging handles and email addresses now in use. This information is available in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's searchable database of sexual offenders and predators.

It's About the Behavior, Not Necessarily the Vehicle

In the large majority of criminal cases citing social media, it is more about the behavior than the use of social media. Let's take the example of the Polk County girls. If the constant bullying had been in person, via the telephone, through notes or through the mail and the victim committed suicide, the charges could still be the same. Social media certainly made the bullying easier, but the behavior of the two led to the charges. If the South Carolina man had shouted his comments from his car instead of posted them online and an officer ran his plates, they would still have found the outstanding warrant. In the case of sexual offenders, using any means of luring someone underage for illicit purposes is illegal, not just via social media. Still, one should keep in mind the "amplifying" effects of social media on their actions.

Social media allows us ways to express ourselves instantly and in an unedited fashion to a larger audience. It pays to keep in mind that it carries the same set of rules that govern us in our "real" lives. Activity that would be considered illegal offline is not protected because it takes place online. Assuming online anonymity is a mistake. On the other hand, laws that protect us offline serve to protect us online as well.

If you have questions about the law and social media, contact us. We're The William Hanlon Law Offices in Tampa, Florida and we will fight for your rights.