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.