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10 January 2013

Libel more damaging if it has potential to “go viral“, court rules

The case could have a large effect on freedom of speech on sites like Twitter.

By Catriona Harvey-Jenner

Thanks to a recent Court of Appeal ruling, Twitter could soon be far from a realm for the free expression we are supposedly entitled to as citizens of the EU. The Times last week published a law report from the case of Chris Cairns, New Zealand cricketer who was falsely accused of match fixing on Twitter. (False accusations on Twitter – very 2012). What’s interesting about this judgement is that damages were upheld not only due to the false nature of what was claimed, but because of the rumour’s potential to have gone viral. Ergo, the more widely spread the defamatory statement, the more damages should be awarded.

If this judgement is latched on to and the case ultimately sets a precedent, it is unclear what method would be used to decide on the level of damages. The ubiquitous nature of the internet and Twitter in particular means that word spreads, usually beyond an individual’s control, making this seem an obscure way of assessing damages. Perhaps the claimant could get a pound for every retweet?

The basis behind the ruling makes sense; it was, after all, taken from a dictum in the 1990 case of Slipper v BBC that stated “defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs”. The problem is that in 1990 the web was only just taking off, and modern social networking was decades away. The principle has been taken and distorted to apply to an entirely different world, where consequences are certainly more severe.

The internet is modern society’s vehicle for free speech, and is essential for a democratic society. Jonathan Coad previously raised the question in his recent article for the New Statesman whether or not it is right to regulate social networks in the same way as national publications. The framework legislation dates back to 1996, so it is arguable that even these are outdated parameters for our changed society.

Equilibrium must be achieved. There is a balance between the Article 10 right to free speech and the equally important entitlement to a fair reputation, but with England being renowned for its exceedingly claimant-friendly libel laws it is worrying that this judgement may tip the balance and ultimately end up deterring free expression across social networking sites.

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