Legal Risks of Naming Specific Persons Online

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Given the proliferation of online material, the risks of misusing a personís name or other information online have increased. Even obscure blogs have thousands or millions of readers. Using a personís name or other information may subject publishers to very serious legal liability.

The types of legal exposure that a publisher may be subjected to can vary, based on the type of information that is being shared and the method utilized to share this information. Publishers can take steps to minimize their potential legal risks.

Defamation or False Light

One serious form of potential legal liability is being pursued because of defamation or false light. Defamation is a type of legal liability arises when a person files a lawsuit because his or her reputation was damaged because of false statements of fact. A false light claim is similar to a defamation claim. However, one difference is that a false light claim may not rise to the effect of defamation in which the subject of publication is scorned or ridiculed. Instead, the subject may suffer emotional distress.

A defamation claim requires publication. This means that the statement must have been told to one other person besides the subject of the statement. Because of the public nature of certain individuals, a claim for defamation is only successful if the plaintiff can show that the speaker acted with malice, which is either making a statement that the speaker knows is false or making the statement with a reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement. This standard applies to public ndividuals such as celebrities, politicians and elected officials. The standard of negligence applies to private citizens.

An absolute defense to defamation or false light is truth. In fact, the plaintiff has the burden of showing that the statement is not true. Additionally, the plaintiff must show that the statement is one of fact and not opinion.

Privacy Violations

Even if the information that is published is truthful, the publisher may still face civil liability based on other legal theories. Many states allow a person to sue a publisher who published private facts about someone else. The term ďprivate factsĒ often refers to information about a personís personal life that has not been revealed in public and is not of public interest or concern. These claims often rely on an assessment of whether the private information would be offensive to a reasonable person. This is based on a case-by-case basis upon the determination of an individual jury.

Misappropriation of Name or Likeness

Another potential hazard of publishing a personís name or likeness without the personís permission is that the publisher can face liability for misappropriating the personís name or likeness. This claim is based on the idea that a person has the right of publicity of his or her own name and that someone else should not be able to economically benefit from using it without permission.

Reviews or Testimonials

The Federal Trade Commission may impose disclosure requirements on certain publishers, including bloggers and social media users who publish reviews of products or services. These rules require that publishers disclose any material correction or relationship that they have with a company that is paying them or providing other benefit to the publisher.


One way that publishers can potentially protect themselves from legal claims is by correcting information or errors once they become aware of such. Their willingness to provide accurate information may diminish their liability for defamation or other claims. Additionally, responding to requests to remove information often satisfies the person who is being discussed.

Communications Decency Act

Publishers who allow reader comments, have web forums or host others to post content are shielded from liability because they are not considered the original poster. This protection is through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and is for third parties. The act does not provide protection to the publisherís employee or someone acting under the direction of the publisher who posts something on the website. It also does not protect the publisherís own statements. Simply, the act protects publishers who simply repost, retweet or otherwise include someone elseís comment on their website.

Individuals who are considering posting someoneís name online should seek legal advice from an attorney familiar with communications laws.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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