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Sharers of defamatory social media post about teacher have legal immunity, N.H. Supreme Court rules

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Stock Catalog via Flickr Creative Commons

A former New Hampshire middle school teacher who sued a group of students for retweeting a defamatory post about her cannot seek monetary damages, the state’s highest court has ruled.

In an opinion issued Wednesday by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the justices found former Merrimack Valley educator Debbie Banaian is barred from suing those who retweeted a derogatory post about her for defamation. The court cited Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act that provides broad immunity for “interactive computer services” including social media sites, as well as their users.

The justices agreed with a lower court that “simply clicking the...‘retweet’ icon and republishing someone else’s content” is shielded by Section 230.

In 2016, a student at Merrimack Valley High School hacked into the district’s website, altering Banaian’s page to include derogatory, salacious statements, according to court records. Students in the district then amplified the claims by spreading screenshots on Twitter.

“As a result, the plaintiff was subject to school-wide ridicule, was unable to work for approximately six months, and suffered financial, emotional, physical, and reputational harm,” the justices wrote.

Banaian’s appeal of the lower court ruling focused in part on whether users of social media sites had the same protections from liability as the sites themselves. The court ruled that Congress made no indication in the statute that a social media user should be exempted from Section 230.

Supporters of Section 230 argue it is a safeguard for free speech on the internet, while critics, including former President Donald Trump, have sought to tighten or repeal the provision arguing the liability protections are overly broad and that the expression of certain political positions may be silenced.

Banaian, who is also a competitive arm wrestler, taught 8th grade science in the district.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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