The Last Word: Social Media, Defamation, and the Statute of Limitations

September 3, 2015

Most social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—allow users to create accounts and post content ad nauseam. Some users take to social media to air grievances with their contemporaries. Occasionally, users create social media posts or entire websites dedicated to trashing the target of their ire. If these dedicated posts and sites are defamatory, when does the statute of limitations begin to run on defamation claims? With the release of its opinion in Laughland v. Beckett, 2014AP2393, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals created the “last publication” rule to govern defamatory social media posts.

Laughland is a classic tale of boy meets girl; boy tries to impress girl by maligning girl’s ex-husband on social media. In January of 2010, John Beckett created a Facebook page in Stephen Laughland’s name, complete with a photo of Laughland and comments purporting to be made by Laughland. He invited Laughland’s friends to join the page. The initial post, made in January of 2010, stated that the page was a “public service profile” created to warn others about Laughland, whom the page declared to be a preying swindler, bank manipulator, and financial derelict. Subsequent posts made in March and April of 2010 contained similar rhetoric, adding “low life” and “loser” to the list of descriptors. Once Laughland learned of the Facebook page, he traced the page to Beckett, his ex-wife’s boyfriend.

In July of 2012, Laughland filed a defamation action against Beckett. Beckett argued the claim was time-barred. In January of 2010, the statute of limitations for defamation claims was two years. However, the legislature extended the statute of limitations to three years in February of 2010. Beckett claimed that, because he created the Facebook page in January of 2010, the two-year statute of limitations applied. His argument relied on Ladd v. Ueker, 2010 WI App 28, 323 Wis. 2d 798, 780 N.W.2d 216, which adopted the “single-post rule” for Internet publications. Under the single-post rule, the statute of limitations for defamation actions begins to run when the defamatory publication is posted on the Internet.

Neither the circuit court nor the court of appeals accepted Beckett’s argument. Unlike Ueker, which involved a single Internet posting, the Laughland court found that Beckett demonstrated a continuous course of action by actively updating the Facebook page with defamatory posts. “Because Beckett continued to actively publish material on the Facebook page until April of 2010, the statute of limitations on Laughland’s claims did not begin to run until Beckett’s last publication.” Therefore, the three-year statute of limitations applied and Laughland’s claims were not time-barred.

Under Laughland’s last-publication rule, the statute of limitations for defamation actions arising from targeted social media posts begins running with the last defamatory post on the site and not with a site’s creation or first defamatory post to the site. This means that subsequent defamatory posts to the same site restart the statute of limitations. In a world where Twitter tirades and Facebook harangues are the norm, it is not the first word, but the last that counts.

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