The issue in Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc., as stated by the court, is:
… whether an author who posts an article on myspace.com can state a cause of action for invasion of privacy and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress against a person who submits that article to a newspaper for republication.
The case arose out of a college student, Cynthia Moreno’s, return to her hometown of Coalinga, California (which is somewhere between Sacramento and Los Angeles). She wrote “An ode to Coalinga” and posted it on her site on MySpace.com. The ode badmouthed her hometown. Six days after publishing it on MySpace, she took the writing off of the site, but the town’s high school principal submitted the writing to the local newspaper for publication. The newspaper republished the ode in the letters to the editor section and listed Cynthia’s full name (she only used her first name on MySpace).
This must have been some ode, as the town became furious:
The community reacted violently to the publication of the Ode. Appellants received death threats and a shot was fired at the family home, forcing the family to move out of Coalinga. Due to severe losses, David closed the 20-year-old family business.
Because the information was published on MySpace.com, there could not be a cause of action for invasion of privacy.
The court held that publishing the ode on MySpace.com defeated any theory that the newspaper’s republication of the ode was an invasion of privacy. The court explained:
Cynthia’s affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material. As pointed out by appellants, to be a private fact, the expectation of privacy need not be absolute. (Sanders v. American Broadcasting Companies (1999) 20 Cal.4th 907, 915.) Private is not equivalent to secret. (M.G. v. Time Warner, Inc. (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 623, 632.) “[T]he claim of a right of privacy is not ‘“so much one of total secrecy as it is of the right to define one’s circle of intimacy — to choose who shall see beneath the quotidian mask.”’ Information disclosed to a few people may remain private.” (Ibid., fns. omitted.) Nevertheless, the fact that Cynthia expected a limited audience does not change the above analysis. By posting the article on myspace.com, Cynthia opened the article to the public at large. Her potential audience was vast.
The court also held that the fact Cynthia removed the Ode from her online journal in six days does not change its analysis. “The publication was not so obscure or transient that it was not accessed by others.” The court also held that because Cynthia published the ode under only her first name on MySpace, but then the newspaper republished it under her first and last name is irrelevant. The court said her identity was readily ascertainable from the MySpace page – primarily because she posted her picture on the site.
While not directly an employment law case, the holding definitely has ramifications for employees who post information on the Internet. As discussed previously here and here, employers can view and possibly act upon information employees list on the Internet. This holding provides further support that employees (as everyone) should be very careful in what they post on the Internet.