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Fabulous Facebook Follies of 2009

For lawyers, Facebook could prove to be a practice area unto itself. As a place where anyone can be anyone else's friend, where words and pictures land too casually and remain too long, and where people have a propensity to publicize their private acts, the social networking site is a breeding ground for legal trouble.

Continuing my look back at some of the stories covered at Legal Blog Watch during 2009, I could hardly ignore Facebook and the many facets of law reflected by those who use it. Herewith, my picks of the top five Facebook legal stories of 2009.

First place goes to the decision of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to screen the Facebook and other social-networking pages of applicants to the bar. As Carolyn Elefant reported here in August, the board mercifully decided against requiring all applicants to give it access to their Facebook pages. Instead, it will decide whether to investigate social networking pages on a case-by-case basis. When and if it does decide to investigate an applicant, it will be looking for "whether they discussed or posted photographs of any recent substance abuse" or examples of "significant candor concerns."

Assuming you make it through the application process and earn your wings as a lawyer, do not presume your candor is in the clear. Our second place honor goes to the somewhat creepy report that judges may be watching you on social media. Our post picked up on a Texas Lawyer article in which Galveston District Court Judge Susan Criss related how she caught a lawyer in a lie thanks to the lawyer's bragging on her Facebook account.

If turnabout is fair play, we are justified in awarding third place to the news that judges, too, are being watched on Facebook. Ethics panels have issued rulings in both Florida and South Carolina on what judges can and cannot do on Facebook. Notably, Florida concluded that judges may not "friend" lawyers who may appear before them. The ethical guidance came too late for North Carolina Judge B. Carlton Terry Jr., who was reprimanded after he not only friended a lawyer who was appearing before him but also exchanged comments about the case.

Not surprisingly, lawyers are doing some watching of their own on Facebook, using social-networking sites to vet opponents and witnesses. Fair enough, given that whatever someone posts to Facebook is potentially discoverable. But our fourth place goes to the caution issued by the Philadelphia Bar Association's ethics committee that lawyers should not use deception in order to friend someone on Facebook and gain access to the person's restricted pages.

Our final honor goes to the news that Facebook not only can get you into legal trouble but also out of it. For Rodney Bradford, his Facebook status update became his alibi when he was arrested for a robbery. Prosecutors subpoenaed Facebook and verified that his update was typed at the same time as -- and on a computer some distance from -- the robbery. The charges were dropped and Bradford made legal history as the first criminal suspect to use a status update as alibi evidence.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 8, 2010 at 10:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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