Anonymous posts and libel law

I’m about to outline a bit of an interesting case which casts light on UGC and the law.

UGC is one of those murky subjects – if someone leaves an anonymous deflamatory or critical remark on an online comment forum – who is liable, the news organisation or the person themselves?

The Case of Clift v Clarke

Just recently the High Court refused to name two anonymous contributors who left messages on an online newspaper comment forum about a woman who won £12,000 in libel damages after Slough Borough Council wrongly put her name on a ‘Violent persons register’.

In an article on MailOnline the lady talked of her experiences ‘I was turned into a pariah for complaining about a yob’ (she complained about anti-social behaviour following damage to a local park’s flower beds). Out of the 40 comments, a couple of people were a bit pithy, leaving 38 in support of this woman’s story.

In Clift v Clarke, the claimant (the woman) asked the court to order the website publisher to unmask the identity of the UGC contributors. Why? Well to sue them for libel too.

Why did she think she had the right to do this?

Well, media organizations can apparently avoid liability for any UGC posts made on a news forum such as in this case, unless the identities of the UGC authors are revealed and pursued.

From my point of you the posts themselves hardly seem anything more than ‘pub chat’.

The comments

“My, I didn’t realise the cost of flowers nowadays. This woman would have been better finding another way to enrich her existence…thereby saving lots of public money.”

“I’m surprised to see how many people on here seem to think it is OK for members of the public to issue death threats against council employees, with attitudes like that is easy [sic] to see why so many doctors, nurses and social workers are physically and verbally abused each year.”

And Justice Sharp agreed. He called the posts ‘honest comment’, believing that in any challenge mounted by the claimant would most likely fail (they have since been taken down by the newspaper).

Solicitor Nigel Hanson says the most interesting part of the Clift case is that Justice Sharp decided that the UGC “pub talk” on MailOnline did not merit the lifting of the identities of the people in question, despite the fact it was posted on a national news website.

But Justice Sharp reasoning was as follows:

  • The two who commented did not have any real knowledge of what they were commenting on.
  • The comments would not have been read unless in conjunction with the article itself – he argued that they comments had to be read in the proper context.
  • There was no evidence to suggest that the two were waging a war or campaign against the claimant.

The law says that there is a right for honest comment, but be careful what you post and where, even an off the cuff comment could land you in hot water.

Here is the full story in law speak.


One response to “Anonymous posts and libel law

  1. Pingback: Online Community Management Links Roundup 08/04/11 - Community Management | Blaise Grimes-Viort

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