New UK Bulletin Board Libel Ruling

In an unusual development, Mr Justice Eady has made a ruling that does something positive for free speech on-line in the UK. Out Law  reports:

Defamation on internet bulletin boards is more like slander than libel, a High Court judge has ruled. Mr Justice Eady said that bulletin board discussions are characterised by “give and take” and should be considered in that context.

[Bulletin board posts] are rather like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out…Those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or ‘give and take’.

“When considered in the context of defamation law, therefore, communications of this kind are much more akin to slanders (this cause of action being nowadays relatively rare) than to the usual, more permanent kind of communications found in libel actions…People do not often take a ‘thread’ and go through it as a whole like a newspaper article. They tend to read the remarks, make their own contributions if they feel inclined, and think no more about it…Opinions may be expressed in exaggerated and strident terms; the only requirement is that they be honestly held.”

…”I would not suggest for a moment that blogging cannot ever form the basis of a legitimate libel claim,” he said. “I am focusing only on these particular circumstances.”

It seems to me, though, that this may be of relevance when it comes to comments left on blogs: alleged libels by commentators can cause difficulties for blog owners, as I noted last year. Unlike libel, slander requires evidence of actual financial loss.

Eady’s ruling is a dismissal of a claim made by a certain Nigel Smith, who runs a shareholder action group. Smith went after 37 contributors to a discussion board, and his targets included posters who had simply objected to Smith’s litigiousness.

Mr Justice Eady said that Smith had persistently pursued cases which were without merit and issued a civil restraint order against him, barring him from starting further actions. He later conceded that he could not do that, though, because he had stopped lawyers arguing about a civil restraint order in the course of the trial.

Eady’s ruling comes two years after another man named Smith won damages for libellous comments in a Yahoo discussion group.