“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was” – Joseph Hall
Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual, business, product, group of people, government, religion or nation. It was defined in Sim v Stretch (1936) as ‘a publication of an untrue statement about a person that tends to lower his reputation in the opinion of right thinking members of the community’. The law in this area protects individual’s reputation and feelings from unjustified violations. Defamation law is recognized as a legit set of law for restricting freedom of expression. The extensive reach of the press, and now the internet, has resulted in the creation of separate laws and differing severity between spoken defamation (slander) and written defamation (libel), the latter of which usually includes radio and television too.
It is particularly important for all social media users to know how to safeguard themselves from defamation. Thus why I am sharing some of my knowledge with you readers so you are aware of how to protect yourself.
“46% of 18-to 24-years-old are unaware they can be sued for defamation if they tweet an unsubstantiated rumour about someone” – according to research for law firm Wiggin.
A tweet or a Facebook status online is regarded as libellous if it damages someone’s reputation “in the estimation of right thinking members of society”. It can do this by exposing them to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”. It is a civil offence so you won’t be jailed but you could end up with a large damages bill. The rules also apply to re-tweets.
Gordon & Holmes v. Love is a good example of a recent case regarding libel on social media. A tweed posted by Courtney Love in 2010 suggesting that one of her attorneys had been “bought off” wasn’t defamatory, a jury decided in January 2014. Courtney Love argued that the statement should be considered an opinion. Courtney Love claims that the message was never meant to be public. It was meant to be sent as a direct message, which only the recipient would see, but it instead went public and was quickly deleted. Gordon & Holmes, accused Love of disseminating “false and outrageous statements” designed to injure their reputation “with the end of damaging plaintiff’s business.” Jurors decided that Love’s tweet included false information, but the musician didn’t know it wasn’t true. Holmes’ lawyer Mitchell Langberg said that while his client was disappointed with the verdict, her reputation was upheld and the world now knows that Love’s statements were false. “At the end of the day, her biggest asset in life is her reputation,” Langberg said. “That she got back today”
The best defence is if you can prove the contents of the post is true, or as Courtney Love (above) claim the defence of honest opinion on established facts – a “fair comment”. Another possible defence is to claim you were covered by privilege, if it was something said in Parliament or in court, or that it was an example of “innocent dissemination” – you did not know you had published the comment (it might have been an automatic system).
The only way to be completely safe is to avoid posting gossip unless you know for a fact that it is true.
Let’s say that I would post on my blog that “Will Smith robbed a bank yesterday”. If this statement is not true (remember, truth is one of the absolute defences to defamation), it is defamatory. There is no way that this statement, if false, is not defamatory.
But let’s qualify this statement. Let’s say that I wrote, “I think Will Smith robbed a bank yesterday.” This is no longer a statement of fact but of opinion (as Courtney Love argued), thus protected from libel suits. But, is this really a statement of opinion? Sometimes statements of opinion really are viewed as statements of fact, depending on the circumstances. In this case, the average person may very well look at my statement as a statement of fact, depending on how well you know Will Smith, and why you believe that he robbed a bank.
Remember, just because you phrase something as an opinion – “I think” or “I believe” – does not automatically protect you from a defamation claim.
Let’s take another example. Let’s say that you wrote a post on Facebook regarding John C who hit a boy at his school and was due to this expelled. Again, if the statement if false, this is almost certainly defamatory. But what if what you have written is to a certain extent true but merely blown up (like it very often is). Maybe John C actually did hit a boy at his school and was as stated expelled, however, not due to the hitting but because of another reason. You have certainly written something that was false, but maybe overall it was not defamatory
The bottom line on this type of situations is that if you are blogging or writing on your Facebook page, or submitting comments on someone else’s blog or Facebook page, make sure that you have all of your facts absolutely straight before posting your statement to the internet. Once you have clicked “send,” you can’t take it back.