A landmark defamation charge against prominent Bermudian lawyer Charles Richardson has effectively put Facebook on trial.

Legal experts say the case — among the first of its kind worldwide — could change the way we use social media.

Lawyer Tim Marshall, a specialist in media law, said islanders who use Facebook and Twitter have to be aware of the “very real risk” that they could end up in court over their updates. Mr. Richardson appeared in Magistrates’ Court on Friday charged with defamation over remarks he is alleged to have made in a ‘status update’ about a police inspector.

His case is rare because the charges are being brought by the Crown in a criminal prosecution. Most libel cases involving social media in the U.S. and the U.K. have been civil lawsuits involving private individuals or businesses.

Mr. Marshall said that whatever the outcome, Mr. Richardson’s case would set a precedent in Bermuda. And he said users of social networking sites would now have to be aware that a casual online comment could land them in big trouble.

Mr. Richardson, 39, of Club Road, Smith’s, has been charged with unlawfully publishing defamatory material about Detective Inspector Robert Cardwell on May 11 last year. He is due to appear in court again on Friday.

Mr. Richardson’s innocence or guilt is not at issue here — it’s the mere fact he has been charged that has sparked interest. He did not enter a plea at Friday’s hearing.

Mr. Marshall, speaking to us in general terms and not about Mr. Richardson’s case, added: “The same rules of defamation apply when using Facebook or any other social medium.

“Even though methods of communication change, over the course of history the one thing that is certain is how our laws are clear about not defaming individuals.

“People should be mindful of what they are saying if they are going to be critical of another individual. Anyone using this medium has to understand that the rules of defamation continue to apply.”

Mr. Marshall said many people hit out at people on Facebook without considering the “wider implications”. This could include being negative about a friend, boss or ex-partner.

He said people get “carried away” with the new ways of communication.

Many users wrongly think that information posted on their own pages is private and does not have legal consequences as it’s only directed at their ‘friends.’

But sending a libelous statement to just a handful of people could be problematic.

Cases of Internet libel are increasing around the world. Mr. Marshall said: “It’s such a new way of communicating that people just don’t appear to have got their minds around it yet.

“It started off as a communication vehicle for the youth, who tend to be much more expressive and liberal, but it’s extended way beyond that.

“People will generally continue using Facebook in the way they always have. But they have to know that if they go too far in expressing their views they can wrongly damage the reputation of another individual.”

Mr. Marshall said there was no need for social networkers to become “paranoid” but they should exercise more control over what they said about others.

He said: “There has to be a balance here.

“Any human being should know when they are making unsubstantiated and damaging remarks about someone’s reputation. If you think you are going to cross the line, you should pause before you press send.

“With this form of communication, the threat of criminal proceedings is always there.”

Prosecution for criminal libel is now extremely rare in the U.K. and Mr. Marshall questions its appropriateness in this day and age.

Libel is defined as defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures.

Mr. Marshall said: “I believe the value of open communication outweighs any benefit achieved by having a means of criminal prosecution.

“In my own view, it’s better left to the civil courts. But the law is the law and until this debate occurs that route is available to people who feel their reputation has been damaged.”

Mr. Marshall added that social networking sites also continue to be used as “a source of information” between people in dispute. Any relevant information can then be used in court as evidence.

He said: “Attorneys like to see if there is anything on Facebook relevant to cases. People give exposure to their lives when they use this form of media.”

SPECIAL REPORT: Social media on trial?