A few nights ago I read an article about Courtney Love (celebrity rock musician) being embroiled in a defamation of character lawsuit for tweeting some comments on Twitter, the ever-popular digital method of stating your inner monologue online in no more than 140 characters. You have just read 190 characters, so you can imagine how brief the sentences must be.
According to the American Bar Association Journal a social media expert has been called in to testify whether tweets are expressions of opinion or statements of fact. However, because tweets are so short it can be very difficult to provide context.
Honest Opinion or Lies?
Bryan Freedman, the lawyer who is suing Love in the defamation of character lawsuit, is concerned that the line between nastiness and free speech is beginning to blur; his opinion is that ‘tweets’ should be protected from liability so long as they represent opinion. He also acted in a similar defamation of character case for gossip guru Perez Hilton.
In the UK, April 2010, Simon Singh came through the other side of a fierce defamation of character UK libel battle brought about by the British Chiropractors Association; it involved a comment he made in the Guardian two years previously: it cost Mr Singh nearly £200,000.
This case drew attention to the draconian nature of defamation of character in UK law. In a nutshell: claimants have to show that the material published is defamatory and that it is “reasonably understood” to refer to them…but they don’t have to show that the statement was false.
Defamation of Character – Onus on Defendant to Prove
Consequently, it gives anyone with substantial resources free-reign to litigate against people they disagree with or who have made statements putting forward a different point of view. The onus is on the little guy to defend themselves in court: extremely costly, time-consuming and potentially ruinous.
Defamation of Character UK Law is regarded as “repressive and unfair” and allows large companies to “essentially quash dissent and to destroy criticism”. There have been many calls for legal reform, but as of yet there has been no change. US law, on the other hand, gives Freedom of Speech more importance, based as it is on the American Constitution. This has a direct influence on Federal Law. In comparison, the European Convention on Human Rights has not shaped the interpretation of Defamation of Character UK Law.
Why Worry About Defamation of Character?
You will probably know someone who uses online social networks or even use them yourself. Facebook is one of the many pan-global ways of instantly communicating with all your friends and expressing opinions about anything.
It is also alarmingly easy for strangers (in particular, company representatives) to see your comments. That could spell disaster if you’re seen to be venting your frustration over a product/service. There have already been defamation of character UK Law cases for defamatory Facebook comments.
With Twitter comments being the subject of Libel actions in the US it makes you wonder: if people in the US (with their fairer defamation laws) can litigate over a handful of poorly chosen words, how easy will it be for someone over here to be sued over a comment on Facebook or other social networks? Be careful what you Twitter!