Wesley Jampel, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2014 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: “While in class you take a photo of a fellow student on Snapchat. You write a mean spirited caption and draw on the image. You send it out to all your Snapchat contacts hoping to get a laugh. You notice a few people have taken a screen shot of your photo, but you don’t think much of it. The next day you see the Snapchat you sent is now posted on Facebook, and by the end of the week the administration at your school has the photo and you’re being called into the disciplinary board. What rights do you have? Can this photo get you into trouble with your school? With the law?”
Taking a Snapchat of a fellow student accompanied by a mean-spirited caption could have legal ramifications depending on what was stated in the caption. In this scenario, the content of the caption is the determining factor regarding whether or not the plaintiff pursuing a lawsuit could have legal grounds for a defamation of character case. In this case, defamation of character could be used to describe accusations of libel (written derogatory statements). Defamation is extremely hard to prove in court because in order to have a legitimate case, the statement would have to contain a slander stated as fact.
In the case of Snapchat, if the user had taken a photo of another student and captioned it with something such as, “Jenna has genital herpes,” the statement of fact has occurred and defamation of character can be pursued. IF the caption of the photo stated, “Jenna is an ugly bitch,” defamation would be hard to prove because courts generally agree that an opinion, no matter how negative, is different from a stated fact. Very few defamation of character cases reach the level of a court trial because actual damages must be demonstrated and most statements don’t constitute slander or libel. While a Snapchat containing a malicious statement and offensive drawings could result in hurt feelings or a loss of social standing, this would be unlikely to reach the legal definition of damages.
On another hand, this Snapchat could get the sender in trouble with their school, depending on the policies associated with the university he/she attends. At Pepperdine University, all students must adhere to a written code of conduct regarding personal honor, morality and integrity. The university reserves the right to dismiss any student who violates these principles. In the section regarding misconduct subject to disciplinary action, it is stated that any communication that constitutes disrespect toward a member of the student body is punishable. Any unauthorized use of electronic or other devices to make an audio or video recording of any person without his/her prior knowledge, or without his/her effective consent is also against Pepperdine policy. If the malicious Snapchat was taken without consent and/or could be described as harassment, the user would likely be subject to a university punishment. Based on the university’s interpretation of the case, the sender could face suspension or expulsion.
Wesley Jampel is a student at Pepperdine University majoring in Advertising.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.