Can you be sued for sending an email?

A lesson on first amendment rights may be learned from an instance of offensive emails and one company’s efforts to find the sender.  

In order to develop a libel case against the emailer, Sandals Resorts International petitioned the courts to divulge the person’s private details after learning that an anonymous Gmail user had been criticizing the firm via email.

The question of how online communications and First Amendment rights coexist in the constantly evolving Internet age was brought to the fore by this case. A New York court ruled that as long as email users express their thoughts in conversations, they should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without worrying about being “outed” by the courts.

The sandals resorts v. Google case

In the Sandals case, the user had emailed a number of individuals to accuse the Jamaican resort of collecting state subsidies funded by Jamaicans while only employing Jamaicans for lower-paying roles and recruiting foreigners for higher-paying ones. In addition to the user’s emails and SMS messages, Sandals also requested access to their contact lists, financial information, and a bewildering array of other sensitive information from Google.

The New York Appellate Division, First Department supported Google’s decision to decline the request, concluding that the email’s contents were protected by the First Amendment as an expression of opinion.

Freedom of speech in emails

Is email a secure medium for online users to complain and scream about anything they want? Although there are restrictions, just like with other kind of free expression, it is possible. Keep in mind that the First Amendment guarantees Americans one of their fundamental constitutional rights, namely the freedom of speech or freedom of expression. However, in other cases, such as when profanity, combative language, or speech that induces alarm, it may be prohibited.

A plaintiff must demonstrate harm or damage resulting from a false factual representation in order to establish defamation. The opinion is therefore not actionable as slander.

That is, as the court determined in the Sandals case, the emailer is likely within his or her right to free speech as long as the comments made in the letter are not presented as facts. In fact, the judge in that case specifically cautioned against companies trying to use the legal system to silence their online critics “via court orders [which] threatens to stifle the free exchange of ideas,” demonstrating how highly our system values freedom of speech, particularly in private communications like emails.

Making sure emails aren’t defamatory

In accordance with the First Amendment, you have the right to protest and express your ideas in emails as long as they are not presented as facts. The most crucial principle to keep in mind is that statements of opinion cannot be construed as defamation, hence the language used is crucial.

There won’t be any defamation if you refrain from making incorrect representations of fact in emails. Before clicking “send,” it also doesn’t hurt to thoroughly review your email, consider the recipients of a potentially contentious correspondence, and consider whether the receiver would be upset.

Also, keep in mind that emails can be forwarded, so your communication may not be limited to the intended recipient (even though, according to a 2010 federal case in New Jersey, a recipient who has forwarded a defamatory message is unlikely to be held accountable for the content under the Communications Decency Act safe harbor provision). While the Sandals Resorts v. Google decision was a victory for free speech, it also served as a warning to anybody who has ever sent an accusing email. As they say, “Think before you speak” or, in more modern parlance, “Think before you send.”