Posting Family Photos to Facebook With Snarky Comments Isn’t Harassment of Family Member — Olson v. LaBrie

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani with comments from Eric]

Olson v. LaBrie, 2012 WL 426585 (Minn. App. Ct. Feb. 13, 2012)

This case is what happens when a headline from The Onion comes to life. Aaron Olson sought a harassment restraining order against his uncle Randall LaBrie. Olson argued that Labrie harassed Olson by…get this…posting “innocuous [but surely awkward] family photographs” to Facebook and making mean comments directed toward Olson. The photos included Olson as a child, “posing in front of a Christmas tree.” LaBrie also tagged Olson in the photos. When Olson became aware of the photos, he requested they be removed or “altered to erase” Olson. Labrie demurred, although he untagged Olson. Understandably, LaBrie told Olson that if he did not like the photos, “he should stay off Facebook.”

Olson was not “friends” (in the Facebook sense, or apparently, in any sense) with LaBrie, and accessed the photos via his mother’s Facebook account. The parties had a peripheral argument about how the photos were accessed. LaBrie said that the photos were meant for his inner circle, but Olson said they were accessibble to the general public. At the end of the day, it turns out to not matter. The court says that posting these types of photos to Facebook does not amount to harassment, and the comments offered by Olson as evidence were nothing nore than “mean, disrespectful comments,” which cannot form the basis for liability. The Minnesota anti-harassment statute is directed at:

repeated incidents of unwanted acts, words, or gestures” that have a substantial effect on the “safety, security, or privacy of another.”

On appeal, Olson tried to argue that LaBrie conduct had a substantial effect on his privacy, but he did not raise that issue in the trial court and the appeals court says he waived it. Even assuming he had raised it, the court says that Minnesota law recognizes three types of common law privacy violations: intrusion, appropriation, and the publication of private facts. Minnesota law does not recognize “false light publicity.” Olson argued that one of these common law privacy violations could have supported issuance of the anti-harassment order, but the court says that the statute defines harassment, and there’s no need to look to case law for additional definitions.

Olson raised two other issues that are worth noting, and really makes me wonder whether this wasn’t some Onion editor’s attempt to generate a story. First he argued that the trial court erred in not crediting the testimony of his mother, who testified that Labrie’s conduct was offensive. Second, Olson tried to get the record sealed. Hello, Streisand Effect!

The only thing that would have kicked this opinion up a notch would have been a cite to awkwardfamilyphotos.com.

Related posts:

Private Facebook Group’s Conversations Aren’t Defamatory–Finkel v. Dauber

Revenge Blogger Ordered to Remove Blog–Johnson v. Arlotta (also from Minnesota–is there something in the water there?)

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Eric’s Comments

This case demonstrates that the family that Facebooks together doesn’t necessarily stay together. I don’t understand why Olson was so concerned about the posting of old “innocuous” family photos, although I can understand why Olson might object to “mean, disrespectful comments.” At the same time, I also don’t understand LaBrie’s response that if Olson didn’t like it, he should stay off Facebook; nor does it make sense that LaBrie said he didn’t intend for Olson to see the photos because they weren’t Facebook friends. It seems fair for someone to object to the publication of photos even on a service the person doesn’t use or can’t see the photos. Obviously there’s a backstory to this family squabble that got washed out in the appellate opinion. I guess it goes to show that you can pick your Facebook friends but you can’t pick your family. A protip of general applicability: never allow sharp objects at family reunions.

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