Libertarian Accuses Critical Blogger of Causing “Alarm and Distress”

Over at Zelo Street, Tim Fenton (recently profiled by the Guardian) reveals details of a nastygram from Griffin Law, sent on behalf of free-speech “libertarian” and commentator Harry Cole:

We are instructed by Harry Cole… We refer to various untrue, defamatory and malicious statements made by you about our client online that have caused and continue to cause our client to suffer damage to his reputation such that those statements amount to actionable libels and malicious falsehoods. As those statements include statements of fact as to criminal wrongdoing on the part of our client, those libels are actionable per se. This gives rise to a claim in damages and a right to interim injunctive relief against you.

Moreover, your course of conduct with regard to our client is manifestly contrary to the provisions contained in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. You have unreasonably and wantonly caused and continue to cause our client to suffer from considerable alarm and distress. This also gives rise to a claim in damages and a right to interim injunctive relief as against you.

The libel angle here is nothing new – Paul Staines and his associates have been using Griffin Law to send out such threats for years, while simultaneously striking a free speech pose and railing against the spectre press regulation. Staines, who is Cole’s boss, justifies the hypocrisy by explaining that his reputation is his property. However, the complaint of “harassment” appears to a new strategy.

First, as regards the alleged libel. Although the letter refers to “various untrue, defamatory and malicious statements”, the missive focuses on one particular item: that at the start of March Tim had posted a photograph that appeared to show that Cole had illegally killed a swan with a hunting rifle. It turned out that the photo had in fact been mocked up by a parody site, and so Tim withdrew the post and his commentary on the subject. As Tim now shows in his new post, Cole and Staines had themselves linked to and promoted the parody photo, and at the time seemed to think that it was all a bit of a laugh.

And second, as regards the supposed harassment: I do not for a moment believe that Cole has experienced “alarm and distress” by anything that Tim has written. Tim’s regular jibes and debunkings may have prompted annoyance, and perhaps even anger, but there is nothing on Zelo Street that comes close to the vicious smears and creepy intrusion that are the regular stock-in-trade of Staines’ operation.

However, vexatious complaints of harassment do have advantages over libel threats: bringing a libel action remains extremely expensive, and victory does not always mean vindication as regards public opinion; by contrast, filing a civil claim for harassment is much cheaper, and the accusation carries a stigma of unreasonable behaviour. Alternatively, one can make a complaint to police, which is free, and then cite the resulting police procedure as spurious evidence of criminality (examples of this practice here and here).

It seems to me that a reasonable person in command of the facts as they relate to a particular case will be able to make a sensible judgement about whether a particular behaviour crosses the line. One example of actual harassment might be, say, sending someone anonymous bullying letters as a way to inform them that you know where they live. Tim has received several of these, posted from EC1 in London and sent in the name of a mysterious “Blog Complaints Commission”. The letters refer to posts concerning Staines and his associates, and the name reflects a phrase that Staines used as far back as 2010.

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