Could ‘reposting’ infringe on others' right of reputation?
On Oct 14, 2020, the defendant surnamed Hou reposted a letter of complaint against a department head of a company surnamed Li, the plaintiff. The letter accused Li of cliquing for selfish ends and suppressing employees, covering up truths with internal handling, and lacking expertise in that his new hires failed the technical interview. Li was a senior management staff at that company, a veteran in the industry with a certain level of reputation. The original poster, Hou and Li were all staff of the same company.
According to Li, the content of the post caused an extremely bad impact on his social evaluation, seriously derogated his reputation and credit in the industry, and misled the general public including many peers. The defendant's behavior not only damaged Li's right of reputation, but also caused immeasurable losses to his subsequent development in the industry. Therefore, Li applied to the Beijing Internet Court (BIC) for a ruling that the defendant Hou should make a public apology to the plaintiff Li in a prominent position in a national publicly distributed newspaper and pay the plaintiff 10,000 yuan ($1,477) in compensation for mental stress and other expenses incurred by the plaintiff in protecting his rights.
The defendant argued that he was only a re-poster. He didn't add any personal opinion while reposting, and the repost was not targeted to anyone. His reposting was insignificant in increasing the impact of the article. The original post topped the hot list on the 13th and was tweeted by an online platform, while his repost on the 14th was not popular. Besides, he immediately deleted the repost after the company's investigation result was announced. The defendant believed the online platform should be responsible for the dissemination of the post. It publicized the post without censoring the content, and did not protect any sensitive information in the article. It even tweeted the post after the post topped the hot list of the day.
Focus of the dispute:
Did Hou's reposting infringe upon Li's right of reputation?
After trial, the BIC concluded that:
The content of the post involved was untrue, and infringed upon Li's right of reputation. Hou did not fulfill a reasonable duty of care, and was at fault in that he did not review the source and authenticity of the post. The reposting objectively expanded the spread of the post, damaged Li's social credit, and violated his right of reputation.
In China, people enjoy the right of reputation and their personal dignities are protected by law. It is prohibited to damage people's reputation by insulting and slandering. The freedom of speech is a basic right. As online media develops, the channels for expressions of speech are more open. However, people posting, while exercising their rights, should also be objective and rational, and refrain from harming the legitimate rights and interests of others. Evidence in the present case showed that the company had conducted investigation and announced there was falsehood in the content of the original post. In this case, the original post was untrue in its content and constituted infringement of reputation in the form of slandering.
As for Hou, most of the content in the original post was negative towards the plaintiff, and had the obvious intention of belittling the plaintiff's character, thus carrying a high risk of right infringement. Hou, as a staff member working at the same company as the plaintiff, would have had more opportunity and duty of care than the general public to check the truth of the content. His failure to do that checking means he was subjectively at fault.
Although Hou argued his repost was not popular, evidence showed his repost was the second most popular, only next to the original post in relevant sections online. Quite a few people forwarded, commented on and liked his repost. Thus, Hou's reposting expanded dissemination of the original post, drawing attention to it, and objectively resulted in further damage to the plaintiff's social credit.
Details of the judgement:
The defendant was ordered to apologize to Li, and compensate him with 5,000 yuan for mental stress and 9,000 yuan for expenses. The verdict is now in effect.
Tips from the judge:
The cyberspace is not a lawless land. Discretion is always needed in words and action. When forwarding posts, one should be prudent and bear the corresponding duty of care in mind to avoid forwarding false content and damaging others' legitimate rights and interests.