Twitter and Facebook users need grasp of defamation law, says Manchester solicitor

Social media users should take extra care about what they post online in case of exposing themselves to potential libel action, according to a Manchester solicitor.

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of reported defamation cases in the UK, where people have been sued for sizable amounts of money for posting allegedly false statements about individual people.

A notable case occurred recently when Blackpool FC owner Karl Oyston sued pensioner Frank Knight for £20,000 for posting defamatory comments on his private Facebook page.

Jeremy Clarke-Williams, head of defamation and privacy law at Slater and Gordon, explained the dangers of posting information that could harm somebody’s reputation online.

“Some recent high profile defamation cases on twitter have highlighted the potential dangers around social media,” he told MM.

“Ordinary Twitter users now need to have some grasp of the law in this area and understand that what they say on social media could form the basis of a defamation action.

“Last year, research showed there had been a 23% rise in the number of reported defamation cases in the UK and part of that growth was due to a sharp rise in the claims brought over defamatory material published through social media and websites.

Libel laws have originated in the UK since the 17th century, but the emergence of the internet over the past 20 years has meant that new guidelines have had to be implemented.

You could be at risk of being sued for defamation if you post false statements that harms somebody’s reputation, causes them to be shunned or avoided, exposes them to hatred or ridicule, lowers them in the eyes of right-thinking members of society or disparages them in their business or profession.

All this criteria more-than-often applies to people in positions of power who are in the public eye. 

“Social media users are urged to think carefully before posting material, especially about other people,” Jeremy said.

“There is a growing concern from high profile individuals who want to safeguard their online reputations and many people now take what is said about them online just as seriously as that in traditional media.”

The University of Manchester’s Free Speech and Secular Society believed that defamation laws were often ‘exploited’ by the rich and powerful merely to stifle negative information, describing the situation as a ‘travesty’ for society.

A spokesperson said: “The principle of libel is that journalists and the general public cannot just write what they like about people without having to substantiate their claims, something we agree with in principle.

“However, the reality is often that libel is exploited by the rich and powerful to censor things that they don’t like.

“The burden of proof is more on the side of the defendant than the accuser, and defamation is treated more as an action than as the consequence of an action.

“This means that all one has to do to squash dissenting opinion is prove that one’s reputation, or the reputation of one’s business, has been harmed by something that someone has said or printed. Regardless of whether it might be true or not.

“This we feel is a travesty and it is especially terrible in the UK. There is good reason why the judiciaries of more and more states are refusing to recognise the decisions taken by British judges on these matters.”

Image courtesy of Tifotter, with thanks.

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