Judge rules on internet forum comments
A High Court judge ruled this week that defamatory comments on internet forums are more like slander than libel, a judgement that could make success in such cases more difficult. Mr Justice Eady found that posts on internet discussion groups such as website bulletin boards are closer to spoken conversations than to published articles, being casual and characterised by "give and take".
Slander is defamation through speech, while libel is defamation through written means, such as a newspaper article. In the UK, it is significantly easier to win damages for libel than for slander. In his ruling,
Eady said in the ruling "– 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'." He said the context in which such remarks are understood lacks the "permanent" nature of written publications. Eady wrote "When considered in the context of defamation law, therefore, communications of this kind are much more akin to slanders… 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." He emphasised that while the current case did not constitute defamation, future cases involving similar casual online chatter could well be legitimate. He wrote "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 was brought by Nigel Smith, head of a shareholder action group in the scandal-hit Aim stock, Langbar. Smith sued the stock website ADVFN and 37 posters to its discussion groups over what he called defamatory remarks. Ironically, the remarks themselves were largely about what the commentators called Smith's heavy-handed threats of legal action over defamatory comments. Posters characterised Smith's actions as "bullying" and said he had "behaved in an appalling manner". Others were more direct, such as one commenter who said, "My wipers scraped better things from my windscreen tonight than this dickhead".
Eady said such comments were likely to be protected as fair comment, even if "exaggerated and strident". Fair comment does not count as defamation as long as it is not malicious and represents the commenter's honestly held views. "Opinions may be expressed in exaggerated and strident terms; the only requirement is that they be honestly held," he remarked. "It is fanciful to suppose that any of these people did not believe what they were saying. Even if they reached their conclusions in haste, or on incomplete information, or irrationally, the defence would still avail them."
The decision contrasts with a ruling by the same judge last month in which Eady awarded F1 chief Max Mosley a record £60,000 damages in a libel case against the tabloid News of the World. Smith told The Daily Telegraph late last month "The judge has denied my Article 8 rights while giving those rights to Mosley,".