Changing the rules*

Can you stop your ex posting your "shortcomings" online? Can a racist remark entitle you to a refund

This is embarrassing. I recently chucked my girlfriend - as much for her good as mine, because I'd been blotting my copybook for quite a while - and I've just found out that she's been posting defamatory messages, some anonymous, on dozens of websites. Her claims (about my supposed physical and emotional shortcomings) would be hilarious, if they weren't such lies. Advice?

Harry Merrett, Cambridge

Threatening the sites with hugely damaging legal consequences is the usual opening bluff in such cases, but most webmasters will be well aware of that. Although the courts are increasingly inclined to protect people from intrusions into their personal lives, there is no general right to privacy in this country. Actually suing for defamation might help you close down the sites - but not if your ex-girlfriend has a demonstrably good chance of proving that you do indeed have the "shortcomings" she identifies. How likely that is, I cannot say.

Speaking professionally, I've no reason to think that you come short in any way. However, I strongly suggest that before going ahead, you obtain a positive assessment even more professional than mine.

But thwarting your tormentor need not depend on a libel win. The Communications Act 2003 criminalises persistent misuse of the internet if done to cause someone "needless anxiety". Some might say a caddish history makes anxiety desirable rather than needless, in your case - but even if prosecutors or magistrates were to share that harsh view, a still more intimidating way of silencing your ex is theoretically open to you. The US Congress recently made it a federal cybercrime to post any message anonymously "with intent to annoy". American lawyers are bound one day to question the constitutionality of this law; but if you could persuade FBI officials to take up your fight, our extradition arrangements with the United States would oblige the British courts to surrender your former girlfriend for trial nevertheless.

You may be free of your own relationship - but the special one is as demanding as ever.

The other day on the bus, I sat next to some racist retard who got more and more agitated about my backpack, muttering that it was probably about to explode. When I told him to fornicate with himself, all hell broke loose - but it was only me that got chucked off. Can I get my fare refunded? It's the principle that counts.

Aman Gill, Birmingham

If the man's comments were overheard, they might have constituted a false bomb alert, punishable by up to seven years - but in the law's quirky way, he would be guiltless if he could show that he sincerely assumed you to be a suicide bomber. In any event, the bus driver has an overriding duty to ensure passenger safety. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the altercation, your removal was almost certainly justifiable.

I end on a sombre note. In these troubled times, sacrifices are demanded of us all; and though your interest in dignity and equal treatment is understandable, it is important to maintain a sense of proportion. After all, what if it had been a police officer, rather than a civilian, who took against you? In the complex and fast-moving situation you describe, your journey might conceivably have ended with bullets to the head, not ejection from the bus.

Rights are certainly worth cherishing. Might it not be more constructive, however, to move on and simply rejoice that you are alive?

It is proper to observe that killings by the police are the exception rather than the norm. And though the homicides the police do commit are invariably lawful (no British firearms officer has ever been convicted for using lethal force), shooting people to death potentially violates health and safety regulations.

Sadakat Kadri is a barrister and author of "The Trial: a history from Socrates to O J Simpson" (Harper Perennial, 2006). Send your civil liberties and human-rights dilemmas to: Changing the Rules, New Statesman, 52 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0AU. This column appears fortnightly

*"The rules of the game have changed" Tony Blair, August 2005

Sadakat Kadri is a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and a writer. His most recent book is The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson, and he is a past winner of the Spectator/Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world