Ed Law Briefly: Georgia Appeals Court Says Parents Are Potentially Liable For Son’s Social Networking Activities

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Background: Dusty Athearn, a 7th grader, and one of his female classmates at Palmer Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia, created a phony Internet Facebook account targeting one of their classmates. Dusty and the female classmate created the fake Facebook page impersonating Alexandria Boston. The duo posted derogatory and false statements making it appear that Alexandria was gay, racist, and mentally ill.  The contents of the page were e-mailed to classmates, friends, and teachers with a “friend request.”

When Alexandria’s parents complained, the school principal determined that Dusty and his friend were responsible for creating the sham Facebook profile. Both students admitted their involvement and were given two days of in-school suspension.  The principal sent Dusty’s parents a notice of the disciplinary actions.

Alexandria’s parents sued Dusty Athearn’s parents for libel and negligence. The site remained active for nearly a year until company officials at Facebook deactivated it. The Bostons alleged that Dusty’s parents made no efforts to view the fake Facebook page or demand that Dusty take it down. The Boston family said Dusty’s parents were told by the principal early on about the derogatory contents and still did not act.

Issue:  Are Dusty’s parents legally liable for negligence by not requiring him to close the offensive Facebook account impersonating Alexandria Boston as soon as they were aware of its content?

Legal Principles: The court must determine whether Dusty’s parents can be held responsible for the acts of their middle school son. Parents are generally charged with overseeing the upbringing of their children, but this takes it a step further. The question is this: Can parents be held financially liable in court when a child misbehaves, severe consequences happen, they know about it, and essentially do nothing? 

Outcome:  A Georgia state appeals court ruled that Dusty’s parents are possibly liable for negligence for not requiring him to shut down the fake Facebook account once they learned of it. A three-judge panel held that Dusty’s parents, “made no attempts to determine whether the false and offensive information Dusty was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted."  The court further held that “…Ahearns (Dusty’s parents) failed to exercise due care in supervising and controlling such activity going forward.”  The case will go back to a lower court for a trial to determine if the parents’ actions – or lack thereof – meet the legal standard for financial liability.

Lessons for Principals and Teachers:

  • This Georgia appeals court determined that, in general, parents or legal guardians may be held legally responsible for the social networking activities of their minor children. You should know the law in your jurisdiction.
  • In negligence cases, the legal burden of proof is usually upon the injured individual(s) – in this case the Boston family – to prove their legal claim is valid.
  • An injured individual must prove four legal elements to establish a credible negligence legal claim.  They are:
  1. A legal duty
  2. A breach of that legal duty
  3. The breach of the duty proximately causes the injury(ies)
  4. An injury occurred

Georgia Court of Appeals:
Boston v. Athearn, A14A0971 (Ga. 2014).

Note: This information is not intended as legal advice. Federal and other court decisions can differ depending on what region of the country you live in. State laws also weigh in on certain issues. All cases are for educational purposes only, and meant to demonstrate how courts or administrative agencies have acted in specific instances as well as to provide information that can bolster the overall legal literacy of teachers and administrators. Local school attorneys can provide more detail about local law.

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