With Friends Like These, You May Need a Lawyer - Articles

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Posted by: William Haltom on Sep 24, 2010

Journal Issue Date: Oct 2010

Journal Name: October 2010 - Vol. 46, No. 10

My wife has 964 friends. And here's the sad part. I'm not one of them.

She really does have 964 friends, and she's getting more every day. They all meet, so to speak, on something called "Facebook," a "social networking web site" that is now used by a half billion people on the planet.

I have no idea how many friends I have. I hope I would have enough to put together a game of 2-hand Bridge.

I'm the only member of the Haltom family who is not on Facebook. My daughter and two sons have joined their mom on Facebook, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if my beagles, Atticus and Scout, are on some doggie version of Facebook, where they are being "friended" by Lassie, Benji, and Elle Woods' Chihuahua, Bruiser.

My wife and her 964 friends are on Facebook 24/7, constantly sending each other messages and updating their "personal profiles" to tell the world all about their likes, dislikes, and what is going on in their exciting lives.

I'm so old I can remember that when I was a little boy, our family had a "party line" phone. By "party line", I don't mean we were having a rollicking good time talking to our friends. I mean that our phone line was not private. We shared it with a number of our neighbors.

More often than not, when my mom or dad or I wanted to make a phone call, we would pick up the receiver on our big black rotary phone, hoist it up to our ear (it weighed about 10 pounds), and before we could start dialing, we would hear our next door neighbor, Mrs. Yarbrough, jabbering away. If we wanted, we could eavesdrop on her conversation, but we respected Mrs. Yarbrough's privacy and hoped she respected ours. Therefore, we would just hang up and make the call later. On some nights Mrs. Yarbrough never stopped talking.

Well, as best as I can figure, Facebook marks the return of party-line telephones, only no one is hanging up and waiting their turn. Every one is talking all at once, and talking constantly.

Earlier this summer, I gave my wife and children their own iPhones. It was probably the biggest mistake of my life. First, it cost me a small fortune. I had to take out a third mortgage on my house to finance it. Second, once I bought the iPhones, I suddenly found myself the victim of a Facebook home invasion.

You see, every time one of my wife's 964 friends sends her a message, her iPhone chirps like a giant cricket. At this point, whether we are at home, dining in a restaurant, worshiping in church, you name it, my wife must stop and check the latest Facebook message on her iPhone. Every so often, I have the audacity to ask my wife what the message is that she has just received from one of her 964 friends. Now you would think that if somebody takes the time to go on their personal computer or their really smart-telephone to send a message, it would be a very important and urgent message. Otherwise, why in the world would they send it?

But as it turns out, all the messages my wife receives from her 964 friends are of no importance whatsoever. Most of her friends just want to tell her exactly what they are doing at the moment. "Bob and I just finished dinner, and we're now going to watch American Idol!"

Excuse me, friend, but who cares?

Well, my wife cares, and apparently so do all of her 964 friends.

My daughter cares too. She and several hundred of her best friends (I don't know her precise Facebook census number) are constantly getting on Facebook and talking like magpies, just as the little girls of my generation would talk on their Princess telephones.

Facebook has become a virtual front porch where everyone gathers to visit. When I was a kid, my mom and her friends would sit on the front porch on summer nights, talking to each other while shelling butter beans. And while they did it, my friends and I would chase lightning bugs in the front yard.

It was all very nice, but Mom didn't have 964 people sitting on her front porch. She had just a few close friends with her, and their conversation was much more in depth than saying, "Well, I'm sitting here shelling butter beans!"

My wife and children assure me that there is nothing to worry about. At best, Facebook builds community, and at worst, it's just a waste of time. But I'm not so sure. You see, in my day job as a lawyer, I'm always looking for legal consequences. And believe me, Facebook has serious legal consequences.

First, there's a matter called defamation. To borrow a line from Claude Raines in Casablanca, I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that thousands of students across the country are now facing civil suits, criminal charges, or adverse consequences in their schools because of posting allegedly defamatory, threatening or indecent messages on Facebook and other social networking sites.

Worse yet, folks are not just posting messages on Facebook. They're posting photos. And again, I am shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that many of the photos people post on Facebook show them engaging in inappropriate or even illegal activities such as underage alcohol consumption, public intoxication, or cheering for the Florida Gators.

And apparently there are a lot of Paris Hilton-wannabes out there who have decided they would like to be the Facebook Playmate of the Month, and therefore post nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves.

That's bad enough, but the naked truth is that many people are posting such pictures not of themselves, but of their friends. And with friends like that, you may need a lawyer.

Mark Twain once said that America is the greatest nation on the face of the earth for two reasons. First, every citizen has the right under the First Amendment to say exactly what they believe. And second, most are smart enough not to do it.

Well, as a firm believer in the First Amendment, I believe that my wife, her 964 friends, my children, and their hundreds of friends on Facebook have a right to constantly send each other messages and photographs.

But I wish they were smart enough not to do it.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.