Posted June 4, 2013 1:35 pm by with 1 comment

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LegalScaleandBooksA recent ruling in a British court should make a few people nervous about what they are saying about others on Twitter.

Actually, it shouldn’t because even though the case was ruled that a particular tweet was indeed libelous when you look at the situation through an American point of view you wonder what in the world the judge was thinking.

The situation as reported by Digital Media Law looks like this

A British judge’s decision that a tweet by Sally Bercow (wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow) libeled Lord Robert Alistair McAlpine (former Deputy Chairman and Party Treasurer of the Conservative Party and an aide to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) shows — if anyone still had doubts — that tweets can indeed be libelous. In doing so, the ruling provides a good model for analyzing Twitter posts to determine whether they are defamatory.

The case stemmed from a Nov. 2, 2012, BBC report on alleged sexual abuse at a foster care home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. A victim of the abuse alleged that one the abusers was a “leading Conservative from the time.” The abuser was also referred to as “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years,” “a senior public figure,” “a shadowy figure of high political standing,” and “a prominent Tory politician at the time.” While the BBC report did not name the alleged abuser, the identity of the alleged abuser was leaked to the political editor of Britain’s Channel 4, who tweeted that the alleged abuser — also without identification — denied the claims.

But speculation was rampant on social media, with many naming Lord McAlpine as the alleged abuser. Bercow’s tweet, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*,” was sent two days after the BBC report aired.

I am not a lawyer, and yet again not having stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, I shouldn’t have an opinion here but it’s hard not to. First, the crime is heinous. There is no other way to describe it even being spared the details.

That aside though the situation quickly escalated and speculation on social media hype machine rolled on unimpeded. In the end, however, the speculation was wrong. The finger had been pointed at the wrong man. Jobs were lost and ultimately the tweet from Ms. Bercow was found to be libelous by the British court system.

So what’s the big deal? Well, there needed to be a lot of ‘filling in the blanks’ to reach this kind of verdict. Be honest; you read worse, or even posted worse, yourself, right?! If we are being honest many of us can admit falling short of the ideal of social media etiquette on some days. Is this kind of statement really libelous? It’s a big jump as far as I can tell. The tweet alone makes no sense unless you cobble together the context which is what the court did but even then the ruling seems ridiculous.

Greg Sterling of Marketing Land puts it this way

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this ruling is that it takes into account facts and information that the tweet impliedly refers to without stating directly (the BBC program and its implications as well as others’ social media speculations about the sex offender’s identity). Thus, the broader “context” of a tweet becomes a basis for a finding of defamation as much as the language of the tweet itself.

As unfortunate as the ruling may be, it’s consistent with the history of UK (and broader European) law that protects reputation at the expense of other values, such as speech. Twitter was not a party to the lawsuit.

So what’s the point here? The point is that you need to tread lightly in the world of social media. There are probably more cutthroat lawyers that are licking their chops to set up situations to make this kind of thing happen with the intent of cashing in on a ruling or two. (If you want to insert your favorite lawyer joke here feel free)

So where are the boundaries? If this is one of the bars being set it is pretty low. I’m not saying this would fly in the US but you never know. If there is one thing one can never do in the online world is assume an outcome of any kind. If you do you know what happens when you assume, right?

What’s your take? Is this something you would view as libelous or is it simply in bad taste or none of the above?

  • Libel laws in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries are somewhat different from US laws. The judge was acting in accordance with their long-standing precedents.