While Coral Gables has gone to court seeking information from Facebook and Instagram about the people who posted a misleading video about the city’s police department, legal experts say getting the information could be difficult.
There’s still not a lot of case history in similar situations — someone trying to get at the identities behind a social media post — but law professors say that the issue comes down to balancing free speech and anonymity with the potential damage of having users make false statements that could go viral.
“If I have a criticism of a government and I state it, should I do it if that agency can turn around and sue me?” said Jill Evans, a professor at Samford University in Alabama. “Things change all the time with social media; it’s a moving target.”
Things change all the time with social media; it’s a moving target.
Jill Evans, Samford University professor
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It’s uncommon for a governmental agency to take this kind of step, said Hannibal Travis, a law professor at Florida International University, so Coral Gables will have to make a strong case that it has exhausted any other options to get the information.
This case stems from frustration — both inside and outside City Hall — over Coral Gables’ trouble filling gaps in police officer positions. Last year the city hired security guards to patrol certain neighborhoods, but they are not sworn law enforcement officers and do not carry firearms.
In May, groups called Protect Coral Gables and “Coral Gables residents who care” posted a video on Facebook and Instagram that shows one girl attacking another, knocking her to the ground, then kicking her and stomping on her head. Three men in vests marked “security” watch but don’t intervene.
The posts said “$610,000 tax dollars wasted on security guards in Coral Gables” and described the video saying that the “security guards can only watch as a girl is beaten.”
“Don’t let this happen in Coral Gables. Call your elected officials and tell them to step up to the plate and protect our families. Demand that they hire certified police officers.”
The attack in the video actually took place in Seattle seven years ago.
On May 26, the city attorney’s office sent cease and desist letters to Facebook and Instagram, and the posts were removed.
City Attorney Craig Leen said the city wants to know the identity of these posters so he can send them cease and desist letters, too.
“The city is very concerned in this instance about any ad that makes a false or misleading depiction or indication that something happened in Coral Gables that didn’t,” Leen said.
The complaint filed by the city in circuit court last month asks for a court order allowing the city to inspect Facebook and Instagram records identifying the name, address and phone number of the people who posted the information. The complaint also says that the groups used the city’s trademarked logo without permission.
The city is very concerned … about any ad that makes a false or misleading depiction or indication that something happened in Coral Gables that didn’t.
Craig Leen, city attorney
Miami-Dade County has had at least two other cases where individuals have sued Instagram to find out who was behind fake accounts that used the person’s real photos.
In 2014, John Blizzard, a model and brand manager, sued Instagram, arguing that the posts were defamatory and were affecting his business relationships. The case was later dismissed.
In a similar case, Michelle Acosta sued to obtain information on an account that allegedly made more than 44 posts pretending to be Acosta, a Florida International University employee. That case was also eventually dismissed.
Experts say that when individuals ask for information on the posters, the requests are usually granted but the social media companies often want to avoid being a liaison between the two sides or a database for people seeking this information.
“The companies say, do we want to override the anonymity of this person?” said Travis, the FIU professor. “I think [the city] could have a problem under the First Amendment.”
Evans, of Samford University, said that because these social networks provide a new, large platform for anonymous posters, there’s a greater chance of posts getting more attention. But technology also makes it easier to track individuals or groups.
“Back in the day, if I wanted to defame you, I would put up fliers all over town so you’d have no way to find me,” Evans said. “But now there are digital footprints all over the place.”