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Court: Facebook Friends Aren’t Legally Real Friends

Facebook friends aren’t necessarily real friends, a court in Florida has ruled.

The court’s finding is probably pretty apparent to anyone with more than a few hundred friends on the social media site, but the issue became one of some importance after a Miami judge was asked to recuse herself from a case in which one of the attorneys is her friend on Facebook.

Third District Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Logue wrote:

“Electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook ‘friends’ varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance.”

Today’s opinion continues: “Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.”

In the 10-page ruling, the unanimous court remarked upon the tendency of people to accept friend requests as a function of broader social networks, data mining and algorithms. Citing Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature, which prompts users to send friend requests based on predictions, the court noted that the technology behind social media is an “astounding development in applied mathematics; it constitutes a powerful tool to build personal and professional networks; and it has nothing to do with close or intimate friendships of the sort that would require recusal.”

Plaintiffs are the Miami-based law offices of Herssein and Herssein. The original dispute arose out of allegedly unpaid legal bills owed by former client the United Services Automobile Association. Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko was assigned to the case and former Miami-Dade circuit judge Israel Reyes was hired by a member of the association.

Butchko and Reyes are Facebook friends so attorneys Reuven and Iris Herssein asked her to recuse herself. She declined and the Husseins then appealed.

But things may be far from settled.

Years ago, an appeals court in Palm Beach ruled the opposite way on a similar set of facts. Which likely means the Florida Supreme Court will have the final say in how real a social media friendship really is.

[image via Shutterstock]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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