Say that again and I’ll sue you

A vivid reminder that UK libel laws still apply online: a college lecturer has been ordered to pay £10,000 in damages and £7,200 in legal costs after libelling a politician. The Guardian reports:

The dark side of the blogosphere was revealed by a libel action brought by Michael Keith-Smith, a former Conservative party member who stood for Ukip in Portsmouth North at the last election. He said he was moved to sue after a woman with whom he was debating the merits of military action in Iraq began a campaign of name-calling that started by describing him as “lard brain” and culminated in falsely labelling him a “Nazi”, a “racist bigot” and a “nonce”.

The “blogosphere” has been crowbarred in there – the libel occurred on a Yahoo message board, not on a blog – but the verdict is as relevant to blogs as it is to other online forums.

Of course, online abuse is nothing new – although it’s rarely as creative as the time I was called a “wankspanner” – but the case does show that legally, there’s a difference between free speech and criminal libel. If you libel someone online, you can’t hide behind your keyboard.

11 thoughts on “Say that again and I’ll sue you

  1. anonymous_david says:

    You’ll never catch me, pee-man!!! I have cunningly disguised my identity behind a clever pseudonym. Consider yourself foiled.

    D

  2. Gary says:

    Ah, the inimitable Mr Jarvis. I’ve just left a comment on that post. Oh, no I haven’t, I’m getting 404s when I hit Submit. Arse.

    Here’s what I tried to post, anyway:

    ***

    Jeff, this isn’t a case of a rich person unable to take a joke. The woman was alleging that the man was a paedophile. In the hysterical climate we have here (where pediatricians’ houses are attacked by mobs, and where suspected “kiddie fiddlers” are assaulted by strangers) that’s not just name-calling, it’s incitement to violence – and I suspect the defendant knew that very well.

    There are sound reasons to distrust the UK libel laws (Robert Maxwell springs to mind) because they are often used as a tool by the powerful to stifle criticism. But this case isn’t an example of that. Allegations about sexual misconduct in the UK can be devastating, even if unproven, on the grounds that there’s no smoke without fire. Look at the John Leslie fiasco, for example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Leslie_%28television_presenter%29

    ****

    I dunno, sometimes I think the blog cheerleaders want to have their cake and eat it. “We want people to take us seriously as news outlets!” Okay! “We don’t want to face the same legal consequences as print media!” Er, hang on…

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