If snarky jokes on Facebook pages are grounds for defamation suits, the opponents of a Plainville slots parlor aren’t the only people in Massachusetts who need lawyers. But frivolous litigation filed by Ourway Realty LLC, the owner of a racetrack that hopes to obtain a state gambling license, is no laughing matter, and state judges should make short work of it and other suits like it.
As Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham reported recently, Plainville resident Thomas Keen helped organize a group to fight a proposed racino at Plainridge Racecourse and registered a website for it. Someone in the group set up a Facebook page. After a break-in at Keen’s house, he gave a webcam image of the perpetrator to Plainville police. They put it on their Facebook page. Someone shared it to No Plainville Racino’s Facebook page. A pseudonymous comment appeared: “I wonder if they checked over at the racetrack, lol.” Ourway Realty sued Keen not just to have the comment taken down — it already had been — and to obtain financial damages, but also to “prohibit any further publication” of information that “associates” the racino project with crime and criminals.
Legal actions by deep-pocketed companies against community activists are an old dirty trick; the plaintiffs’ hope is that the cost and hassle of litigation will tamp down opposition. The Ourway suit, if it goes forward, poses a particular threat to grass-roots activism today; many nascent causes get organized on Facebook or Twitter, where an ironic sensibility often prevails.
The lawsuit reflects, at best, a misunderstanding about how social media operate. Keen maintains he didn’t post the picture on the anti-racino Facebook page; someone else shared it. Nor did he post the comment in question. Moreover, the “LOL” — for “laughing out loud” — at the end of the offending, and now deleted, comment makes it clear that whoever wrote it was kidding. Thankfully, Keen is getting legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union. If average citizens can be sued over anonymous jokes on Facebook, it’s not just casino opponents in Plainville who are in trouble.