The Responsible Use of Social Media in a Legal Defense

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There has been a lot of press today regarding the online presence we have put in place for the defense of George Zimmerman, and we are not surprised to discover that our decision is controversial. Some have called it unethical, and some have called it brilliant; however, we believe much of the controversy is about the medium, not the message.

Using social media in a high-profile lawsuit is new, and relatively unprecedented, but that is only because social media itself is relatively new. We repeat our contention that social media in this day and age cannot be ignored, and it would be, in fact, irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation.

We find ourselves in a position to set a standard for a professional, responsible, and ethical approach to new media in the legal arena. In our blog post “Why Social Media For George Zimmerman?” we explained seven objectives for our online efforts; we essentially explained what we would be doing. It is also worth taking a moment to explain what we will not be doing.

We Will Not Comment On The Character of Trayvon Martin, His Family, or His Supporters

Whatever the outcome of this case, and however it is framed by either party, what cannot be denied that a young man lost his life, his family is in mourning, and people around the country are showing their support — and they have our respect and sympathy. While certain details regarding Trayvon Martin may become part of trial, they will never be a part of our online discussion, and we will aggressively moderate comments on our page on Facebook, and discourage others from making disparaging comments.

We Will Not Use Our Online Presence As A Vehicle For Dissemination Of, Nor Will We Comment On Any Evidence Regarding this Case

One of our core objectives is to discourage speculation regarding the facts and evidence of the case. We commit to avoid even the appearance of any impropriety regarding information traveling through our website and social media profiles which could, in any way, affect the proper presentation of the case where it is to be tried — in a courtroom. An example of that commitment is our evolving rules regarding the moderation of comments posted. We intend to remain very proactive in limiting such conversations so as to avoid any possible negative impact on the criminal justice system.

Update June 20, 2012:

On June 18, we began posting public documents associated with the case. We feel that providing these documents directly on our website allows interested parties to access the information without the filter of the media and thereby serves the purpose of off-set any potential misinformation surrounding the documents. Moving forward, we will use our online presence to post public records, pleadings, and reciprocal discovery that is relevant to the case.

We add links to our website posts on the George Zimmerman Legal Case page on Facebook. Facebook allows users to comment on posts, and we have found that each of our posts receives between 400 and 2,000 comments. We moderate these comments according to rules posted on our page on Facebook. One of the reasons we have given for removing a post includes this:

It included speculation about the facts of the case which must and will only be discussed in a court of law.

Because much of the news regarding the case includes public release of discovery, we have allowed some general discussion about discovery as it serves to clarify details included in public records, and we remove comments that include excessive speculation about or misrepresentation of details in the public records. We do not comment on specific details, nor do we express or endorse any points of view regarding specific details. We do use the comments on Facebook to help us understand how individuals perceive information they are presented with regarding the case.

Our online presence was created in response to the enormity of interest which has inundated the firm since our first day of involvement. Literally hundreds of emails and phone calls came in within hours of our announcement regarding our representation of Mr. Zimmerman. While they deserve a response, as they represent the public, the workload to do so is overpowering. It became readily apparent that an alternative forum was necessary to handle the high volume of interest we receive.

Social media is the obvious answer.

Having said that, we acknowledge the potential for misuse exists in any such forum. That is why we have established and published strict guidelines to which we will hold ourselves. Judging by the intense scrutiny our online presence is garnering, we expect many others will be watching to see that we adhere to our own guidelines. We believe that social media will inevitably become a standard part of the legal process, but we insist that while the evolution of our society’s ability to interact has enormous potential to benefit us as a whole, it must be moderated in a way which protects both an individual’s right to, and our system’s responsibility to provide a fair trial with an impartial jury.