Saturday, 3 March 2012

Contempt by Facebook

Social media has opened up communication in a big way, by providing an omnidirectional, accessible and unrestricted communications forum. Users can post their opinions and hold discussions with anyone, at any time, and, significantly, there is no start or end to the discussion. Through the transitory power of links, discussions move from one person to another, from one perspective to another. Anyone can squat down on a chair in front of an internet enabled device and let loose, without being subject to qualifications or standards.

Of course there are exceptions, as Facebook, along with other social mediums such as forums, have their own privacy options and rules. In fact, I guess much of the preceding text should be qualified with exceptions and limitations. The point being made, however, is social media is associated with freedom of discourse. Reality check for some recently, as a juror was charged and sentenced to eight months incarceration for shooting the breeze with the defendant on Facebook, during the trial. Jurors are forbidden from having personal discourse with defendants during the deliberations, or engaging in behaviour which may influence the ultimate verdict.

 The juror, who also searched for information about the defendant's boyfriend online against confidentiality instructions, claimed she felt some empathy for the defendant and did not mean to influence the verdict. Extracts from the conversation sound uncannily like casual Facebook banter between friends, one commiserating the other over a trivial personal problem: 'what's happenin with the other charge??' (defendant), to which the juror asked for clarification, then replied 'cant get anyone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese don't say anything cause jamie they could all miss trial'.

Except this was a very serious criminal trial, and the topic anything but trivial. The judge released a statement explaining the grim, but arguably necessary decision to jail the juror, reiterating that jurors have, and always have had, a sworn oath not to engage in communication that could jeopardise judicial integrity. It was true with traditional media, and holds true with social media. Additionally, the trial is being re-examined because of the indiscretion.

Social media is a different type of medium than the phone or the printed press, and, controversially, is not always subject to the same regulations. But, there are some major legal regulations and standards involving touchstones like judicial integrity (in this case), as well as others, such as defamation, which we must assume applies to all communication mediums.

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