Watch What You Say Online

by Kidd Rapinet on April 9, 2008

Posting comments on websites can lead to trouble if they aren’t true. In a recent case someone was sued for defamation because of what they posted online.

We often advise on liability of those running websites, particularly where individuals are allowed to post comments. If the comments are checked in advance then the site can be held responsible for the content. If not, then as long as they are removed quickly there is usually no liability.

The latest case looked at whether such comments are “libel” (written comments) or “slander” (spoken comments). In a welcome move which reflects the realities of online life, the judge held that bulletin board postings are more likely to be regulated by the laws of slander, not libel, and much less likely to lead to successful defamation actions. Claims for slander can only be brought if there is provable financial loss. In this case, a serial litigator was stopped from bringing his various actions.

The judge said that comments on an online forum are not treated in the same way as the publication of a newspaper article. “[Bulletin board posts] are rather like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out… Those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or ‘give and take’… When considered in the context of defamation law, therefore, communications of this kind are much more akin to slander (this cause of action being relatively rare nowadays) than to the usual, more permanent kind of communications found in libel actions….People do not often take a ‘thread’ and go through it as a whole like a newspaper article. They tend to read the remarks, make their own contributions if they feel inclined, and think no more about it.”

Mr Smith runs a shareholder action group and sued a business running bulletin boards and 37 individuals. The court found that he persistently pursued cases which were without merit and issued a continuation of a general “stay” (stop) on legal cases he had already begun.

In the latest case, the judge said “I would not suggest for a moment that blogging cannot ever form the basis of a legitimate libel claim. I am focusing only on these particular circumstances.”

The case is sensible and practical and reflects how people post online. It does not remove the risk for those posting comments that they may be sued for defamation but it does mitigate such risks. For further information, please contact our litigation team.

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