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Legally Speaking: #PlaneBae is a cautionary tale of privacy in social media age

(Twitter/@roseybeeme)

We live in a world where social media is prevalent and, at times, intrusive. There are many — you may be one of them — who want to gain followers and go “viral.”

This can be positive, boost your self-confidence and drive potential customers to your business. That being said, you need to go about it the right, safe and legal way. If you fail to do so, you could find yourself at the losing end of a lawsuit or public ridicule.

There was a viral story recently referred to as #PlaneBae. A passenger on a plane switched seats with another and then proceeded to live tweet everything about the conversation the other woman was having with the man sitting next to her. Her tweets included pictures, identifying details and insinuations. Her tweets went “viral” and brought unwanted attention to the woman. Although the man in the conversation embraced the attention, the woman asked the tweeter and the man to stop. The tweeter apologized and claimed to feel awful but then used the woman’s name — basically negating the sincerity of the apology.

I bring this example up because it raises some very serious legal and social consequences. You might be one that believes it is, or would be, fun to post pictures of people with witty captions and comments without that person’s permission. You may have even done it before. You may believe that since that person is in a “public place” that anything they say and do is not private or confidential.

You are wrong. Let me explain.

In Arizona, a plaintiff can sue someone for Invasion of Privacy even if the plaintiff was in a public place. The plaintiff has to show they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in what they were doing, what they were saying and/or where they were. If a person intentionally intrudes on or invades that expectation of privacy and it causes harm to the plaintiff, then a lawsuit could follow. This is referred to as Intrusion on Plaintiff’s Seclusion or Private Affairs.

Let’s take it a step further. If that intrusion or invasion results in the person disclosing private information about, or photos/images of, the plaintiff and the disclosure would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person” then the plaintiff can sue for Public Disclosure of Private Facts.

One step further – after the person intrudes/invades on plaintiff’s privacy, publicly discloses the information or the picture, and if it also gives a false impression of the plaintiff, then they can sue not only for the two above, but also for Publicly Placing Plaintiff in a False Light.

In the #PlaneBae example, the woman on the plane could argue she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the conversation with the passenger next to her. Even though she was in a “public” place, she did not expect others on the plane to listen intently and post it on social media; a reasonable person would not expect that to happen. There is the possible claim for Invasion of Privacy and Intrusion on Seclusion or Private Affairs. Then, when the details about the conversation and the woman, along with pictures, was disclosed to the public; there is the possible claim for Public Disclosure of Private Facts. Lastly, when the social media queen made the insinuation of sexual activity in the plane bathroom, that brings in the Publicly Placing Plaintiff in a False Light.

These claims could result in a defendant having to pay actual damages along with punitive damages. Not to mention the harm that could come from the court of public opinion within the social media world.

The #PlaneBae incident teaches us a very good lesson. There has to be limits; there is a line that should not be crossed. When it is, the possibility of lawsuits rears its ugly head. Just because you can post details about others on social media doesn’t mean you should or that you are entitled to.

So what does all this mean #LegallySpeaking? It means that you should think twice about posting private information or pictures of someone in public without their consent, even if you think it is harmless. Harm is in the eye of the beholder, and in the wallet of the defendant.

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