Blog Libel Cases in the London High Court

From Dave Osler:

LONGSTANDING readers may remember that I am facing libel action from Tower Hamlets Tory activist Johanna Kaschke – as featured in the YouTube clip above – following a post about her on this blog in 2007. She is also suing two other Labour Party members, Alex Hilton and John Gray, over related issues.

Alex, of course, is prospective parliamentary candidate for Chelsea & Fulham, surely an easy peasy Labour gain in the current political climate. Bankruptcy, which will result for all three of us if Ms Kaschkde prevails, will disqualify him from becoming an MP.

I spent all day yesterday in the High Court, listening to Alex’s appeal that an application for summary judgement be upheld, and I’m just about to head off for a second helping. His case is being argued on a point of law, rather than the underlying merits of the matter. The ruling will probably come about lunch time.

Meanwhile, I’m on for a four-day jury trial, which will cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds, and is set to commence on November 23. ‘Overtly Tory’ blogger Iain Dale has agreed in principle to appear as an expert witness on my behalf, which should underline that this is more than simply a party political spat.

…Interestingly, the jury will also be asked to rule on whether or not it is libellous to call somebody ‘one cherry short of a Schwarzwalderkirschtorte’. Not my words, but those of a reader, left in the comments box. If I lose on that point, the consequences for internet freedom of speech are clearly considerable.

In the USA, that last point would be dismissed as meaningless abuse, and in 2007 the High Court in London ruled in another case that some defamatory comments in should not be taken seriously if they are “little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes”.

However, and more seriously, if the court considers that Osler and the other defendants are liable for a comment left by someone else, then everyone who blogs in the UK will have to consider moderating comments, or turning off the comments feature altogether. It’s one thing if a blogger refuses to remove a truly libellous comment – and if a court order is made to reveal the IP or other details of a commentator then of course the blogger must either comply or face the consequences – but at the moment we’re in an alarming situation. It doesn’t matter if the comment is removed quickly, or if nobody much saw the comment. And what if the comment appears on a defunct blog that the owner (or the owner’s next of kin, if he or she has died) no longer monitors? I had a nasty scare over a comment a few years ago, so I now remove comments that are probably OK but not worth a battle over.

I previously blogged on Kaschke here and here.

(Hat tip: Harry’s Place)