By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

For newspapers, legal rules of the road for social media remain under construction.

Start with these guidelines as you implement policies for your staff.

• If you are writing a news story and find something pertinent on a Facebook page, you can use the information or photo without violating any copyright law.

It will fall under the “fair use” defense because the use isn’t for a commercial purpose.

• That defense evaporates if you’re using the information/photo to promote the newspaper or as part of an advertisement. Copyright infringement and the rights of publicity could rear their heads and create an unwanted liability for the newspaper.

• If you do use information from someone’s Facebook page, properly attribute the source. Make clear that the information, which might be defamatory, is the view of the person who controls the Facebook page, not the view of the newspaper.

Another recent question concerned Twitter and “ownership” of followers.

For example, a popular reporter on his own initiative creates a Twitter account to share his views on the mayor and city council. His insights on city government build a faithful following for his Twitter handle (@citybeatDave).

Dave then decides to accept another job in his home state of Iowa.

Are there any legal pitfalls for the newspaper to reach out to Dave’s Twitter account followers?

• The newspaper can send a tweet to Dave’s followers wishing him well in Iowa and encouraging his followers who are interested in city government to start following Dave’s replacement on Twitter.

• If you are trying to create a Twitter presence for your newspaper, consider having your reporters, editors, etc., operate under more generic handles that would survive if you shuffled newsroom assignments or have a change in personnel.

• Whether the newspaper initiates the Twitter accounts for employees or the employees create the account, the newspaper must realize that libel can still be an issue.

For example, your sports reporter, Bill, is covering Friday’s football game. During halftime’s lull in the action, Bill tweets the rumor that the married local football coach is sleeping with the unmarried cheerleading coach.

It doesn’t matter whether the Twitter account is considered Bill’s personal account or a newspaper account. Since the tweet occurred while Bill was working within the scope of his employment, the newspaper can expect to defend itself if the coach files a libel lawsuit.

The moral of the story: Publishers need to give some thought to social media use by employees and implement policies that benefit the newspaper and deter legal liabilities.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.