Legal eagles: Can a Facebook post be sufficient grounds for a libel suit?

First, yes, I know anyone can sue anyone else for anything. That’s not my question.

If I run an ad in the newspaper (you remember those?) saying “Mr John Smith is being investigated by the grand jury for conflict of interest and corruption in his city government job” then I presume that Mr John Smith would have grounds for a libel suit against me, assuming that the allegation was not true, because the allegation is seriously detrimental to Mr Smith’s reputation.

If I ran a Facebook post saying the same thing, would Mr Smith also have grounds for a libel suit against me?

Since I am not a lawyer, I have probably not used the proper terms of art, so I am open to correction, as long as it also includes an answer to the question that I am trying to ask.

Publishing on the internet is legally equivalent to publishing in a newspaper. If that’s your question.

Probably not, no. Mr. John Smith is a public figure, and defamation against a public figure requires that “actual malice” be shown, which is difficult.

See New York Times v. Sullivan and Curtis Publishing v. Butts for more.
ETA: Unless you mean by “city government job” that he’s not a government official. In that case, yes, libel is a possibility.

Not just libel. It can be sufficient cause for a criminal conviction. A woman near where I live was convicted of two counts of harassment by a telecommunications device and two counts of criminal false communication over Facebook posts.

Grand jury investigations are usually secret, so if you’re leaking actual information from those proceedings, you might have criminal charges coming as well as a defamation action for civil damages. IF John Smith is a public figure, he’d have to show actual malice to win, but that’s not a bar to filing suit.

John Smith is the director of a city agency, but not a well known or particularly public figure outside a fairly small circle of people, if that makes a difference. The agency is reasonably well known but not many people have an interest in who runs it.

The confidentiality issue is kind of a 2-edged sword, or maybe 3. Either I have knowledge legitimately (which would either be because I am on the jury, or because I was interviewed by the jury) in which case I would be guilty (in my state) of a misdemeanor violation of confidentiality; or I got the information from someone who does know, in which case that person would be guilty of the misdemeanor but I would not, since I never made an oath to that effect. Or thirdly, the allegation just isn’t true, which I believe would contribute to the validity of a charge of libel.

Does any of this change anyone’s answer?

I guess that’s most of my original question. May I ask your credentials or your source(s) for making this assertion? Since I don’t know you, that is.

Mr. Smith is an elected or appointed part of the government structure, so he is a public official, regardless of how well known he or his agency is in the public’s mind.

Obsidian Finance v. Crystal Cox might shed some light. The concern is a blog posting, not Facebook, and the official is court-appointed, not elected or appointed by an agency, but it might answer some of your questions about using Facebook over traditional newspapers.

Some highlights:

Grounds for a suit and grounds for recovery are two different things. Unless the jurisdiction you’re in recognizes defamation per se, Smith would have to show actual damages resulting from your post. If the city council fired him based on your post, that would be easy, of course, but things rarely work out like that.

Defamation per se is a doctrine which gets around the need to show actual damages by accepting that some claims are so clearly damaging that the plaintiff need not prove loss. Claims that a person is incompetent or corrupt in his line of business or employment, or that a person is engaged in criminal activity, are both considered defamation per se.

Some but not most states have repealed defamation per se (the common law rule) by statute.

He’s a lawyer.

Publishing is a term of art in tort law, which specifically means to broadcast a defamatory statement to one or more other people. It doesn’t matter whether you do it by newspaper, letter, email, Facebook post or write it on a paper plane and throw it into a crowd of people.

Or simply do it orally, i.e. by speaking to people - even to one person. The mode of publication you employ will affect the number of people who receive the defamatory statement and (sometimes) the degree of credibililty they attribute to it, but those are matters which go to the amount of damages to be awarded, not to the fundamental question of whether there has been a defamation in the first place.

A whispered confidence to your lover can be “publication” for the purposes of defamation.

Remember “actual malice” includes a “reckless disregard for the truth” which would seem to be the case in the OP since verifying the truth of the assertion should be easy.

That said proving damages might be difficult to quantify.

Disregard, yes, but I’m not sure that it would qualify as reckless.