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Case law: Potentially defamatory comments on social media will be interpreted differently from same comments in other media

Individuals about whom derogatory comments are posted on social media should take legal advice before claiming defamation, as the courts will interpret such comments differently than if they were made elsewhere, such as in newspapers or on TV, according to a Supreme Court ruling.

November 2019

This update was published in Legal Alert - November 2019

Legal Alert is a monthly checklist from Atom Content Marketing highlighting new and pending laws, regulations, codes of practice and rulings that could have an impact on your business.

During a bitter divorce, the wife posted disparaging comments about the husband on Facebook, including one saying he had ‘tried to strangle her’. The husband sued the wife for defamation.

The law says that when deciding whether words are defamatory, the language used should be interpreted as if it was being read by an ordinary, reasonable reader.

The husband argued that such a reader would take these words to mean he had tried to murder her, which was defamatory. The High Court and Court of Appeal agreed. Based on the dictionary meaning of the word ‘strangle’, they found that those words would be taken by an ordinary, reasonable reader to mean he had tried to kill her, although he had failed to do so.

The Supreme Court overturned their rulings. It said it was very significant that the words had been posted on social media because the reading habits of an ordinary, reasonable Facebook reader, for example, would be different from those of an ordinary, reasonable reader of, say, a newspaper. Relying on a dictionary definition therefore amounted to a legal error.

The court said readers of posts on Facebook or tweets on Twitter ‘do not subject them to close analysis. They do not have someone by their side pointing out the possible meanings that might, theoretically, be given to the post’. Particularly, they do not refer to dictionary definitions in the way the lower courts had.

The Supreme Court therefore agreed with the wife’s arguments that the words would be read by an ordinary, reasonable reader on social media as meaning merely that the husband had grabbed her violently by the neck and restricted her ability to breathe so she feared she could be killed. Her defence of justification for what she had posted was therefore allowed. There had been no defamation.

Operative date

  • Now

Recommendation

  • Individuals about whom derogatory comments are posted on social media should take legal advice before claiming defamation, as the courts will interpret such comments differently than if the same comments were made elsewhere, such as in newspapers or on TV.

Case ref: Stocker v Stocker [2019] UKSC 17

Please note: An article published in the April 2018 edition of Legal Alert covered this case at an earlier stage in the legal process.

Disclaimer: This article from Atom Content Marketing is for general guidance only, for businesses in the United Kingdom governed by the laws of England. Atom Content Marketing, expert contributors and ICAEW (as distributor) disclaim all liability for any errors or omissions.

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