An ugly dispute between two reality stars has the potential to create precedent on the responsibility of television networks for posts by its talent on social media sites.
The protagonists are Mykel Hawke and Joseph Teti, both veterans of Special Forces. The seeds were sown when Teti, who was Hawke’s former employee, was given a show by Discovery Network called Dual Survival. Hawke already had a similar show on Discovery, entitled Man, Woman, Wild. Things only got worse after Hawke’s show was cancelled. The parties traded attacks on Facebook. Hawke accused Teti of complicity in a fatal helicopter crash and of misrepresenting his military service. Teti questioned Hawke’s mental health. Litigation ensued.
The battle ultimately involved four juridsictions. In Texas, Hawke sought a protective order against Teti’s alleged stalking. Teti’s riposte was to file a defamation action in North Carolina. Hawke counterattacked in South Carolina, bringing his own suit for defamation and tortious interference. In a creative move, Hawke’s lawyers named Discovery as a co-defendant in this action. Their theory is that Discovery is responsible for the social media posts of its employee Teti. The complaint alleges that Discovery “failed to take action to stop the defamatory statements from being posted online,” and failed to “adequately train personnel in public interaction, when and what types of communications employees should say publicly and/or put into print.”
Teti was dismissed from the South Carolina suit for lack of personal jurisdiction. Discovery, now sole defendant, moved for summary judgment and subsequently removed the case to federal court in Maryland.
Discovery’s first argument for summary judgment goes to the underlying alleged defamation: simply that the facts will not support a claim that Teti’s statements meet the legal standard for defamation.
The network moves on to rebut its alleged direct liability for the posts. It says that in response to Hawke’s complaints about Teti’s posts on the official Dual Survival Facebook page, it applied a filter to block any posts containing Hawke’s name. It also claims that Hawke has been unable to state with certainty whether particular statements were made on an official page or on Teti’s personal social media accounts. Discovery also denies that it ever directed or encouraged Teti to say the things he did.
As far as vicarious liability goes, Discovery argues that Teti’s remarks were “outside the course and scope of his duties at Discovery.” It asserts that Teti made the posts entirely on his own, on his own time, not on the set, and using his own internet connection and devices.
Discovery also makes an interesting statutory argument under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That section provides that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It is due to this section that, for example, it would likely have been futile for Hawke to sue Facebook itself for the contents of the Dual Survival Facebook page. Discovery argues that by creating and administering the page on which third parties could share content, it should be likewise regarded as an “interactive computer service” with complete immunity from Hawke’s causes of action.
In just a few short years, social media have transformed our world. Cases such as this one have the potential to establish the legal principles that will guide parties’ behavior going forward.