There are a lot of crackpots in the world.
Social media helped them rise to the top (or sink to the bottom, as it were).
COVID gave them free time to shout their drivel from the social media rooftops.
But this is America, and our First and most important Amendment says that we cannot stifle the garbage that some spew, even when it is clearly identifiable as “malarkey,” as our President calls it. Our obligation as Americans is to either respond to the nonsense with facts, or just let it all die from lack of oxygen.
Either can be effective in response, but sometimes more is needed.
I represent folks who occasionally get targeted by social media cellar-dwellers. We like to tell ourselves that everybody is equal in this country, but that’s not exactly true. Some folks work hard, pay their taxes, raise their families, and act with kindness. Others do the opposite. There is no equivalence among those who occupy these different groupings.
Those who go on the attack with the intent of smearing, humiliating, or threatening often go after folks who have earned our respect as leaders in the community. Those who do the attacking tend to be those who “earned” participation trophies back in little league. Not everyone’s an MVP - the smear artists prove that every day.
I recently had to deal with a case where one of my clients, by all accounts the kind of person we would all want our kids to grow up to emulate, had suddenly become the target of a social misfit for no reason other than that my client was somebody in the community who had decision-making responsibility.
There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with a leader’s decision, especially when there are facts and policy reasons to support the disagreement. But when the disagreement becomes vulgar, threatening, or harassing, there is no need to tolerate it even if one is a local public figure.
But what does the law say about that? After all, First Amendment protections are quite broad - as they should be. What can be done when a crackpot goes on the attack?
Most of us have heard about libel and slander, together known as defamation. And while a claim of defamation may be an effective means of stopping the harassing and demeaning behavior by the guy who still lives in his mother’s basement, there are other tools as well.
Connecticut recognizes the tort of invasion of privacy. There are four possible ways that one’s privacy can be invaded, including: placing one in a false light, unreasonably intruding on one’s seclusion, giving unreasonable publicity to one’s private life, and appropriation of one’s name or likeness.
Filing a lawsuit for invasion of privacy can be a powerful means of stopping harassment in its tracks.
Someone who is harassed by another can also bring a claim for infliction of emotional distress. In order to be successful on this kind of claim, an injured party must prove that the defendant intended to cause emotional distress, that the conduct was extreme and outrageous and caused the claimant’s distress, and that the emotional distress was severe.
These requirements all go to questions of degree of harm, but in cases where one’s privacy is invaded and humiliation follows, it makes sense that emotional distress would be the expected outcome.
Still, where the emotional distress, or the privacy invasion results from speech on a matter of public concern, the First Amendment is likely to protect the speech, no matter how outrageous society would generally consider it to be.