Last week saw the first British libel settlement arising out of allegations published on Twitter. In Wales a Caerphilly Councillor, Colin Elsbury, agreed to pay £3,000 damages, substantial costs and to publish an apology on Twitter for his tweet about a political rival, Eddie Talbot.

The previous week, in the US, Courtney Love paid US$430,000 (£265,000) to settle the libel suit brought by a fashion designer over allegations Ms Love had published on Twitter in which she said the designer was a thief and a criminal. The “Independent” reported the settlement.

The Welsh settlement was over a tweet published on the day of the County Council by-election in 2009 by Mr Elsbury, the Plaid Cymru candidate, which stated “It’s not in our nature to deride our opponents however Eddie Talbot had to be removed by Police from a polling station”.  Mr Talbot, who was also standing for election as an independent candidate, claimed that this suggested he had been forcibly removed for criminal or disreputable conduct, which was completely untrue.   Mr Elsbury said that it was a genuine case of mistaken identity.  (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Mr Elsbury won the election and Mr Talbot came second).

Courtney Love’s tweets were also made in 2009 and resulted in a claim for not only libel but also false light invasion of privacy, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress (a copy of the complaint can be seen here).  Unlike Mr Elsbury, Courtney Love made a large number of Tweets making a whole series of vicious verbal attacks against Dawn Simornagkir (examples include allegations she was cocaine dealing, that she was a “nasty lying hosebag thief” and a prostitute). Ms Simoragkir’s lawyer is reported to have said, “Personally I think $430,000 is an appropriate way to say she’s sorry”.

The agreed damages in these two settlements may have differed wildly but that is to be expected given the individuals involved, the allegations in issue and the different jurisdictions at stake.  What the settlements do highlight is an awareness that the usual rules of libel will apply to defamatory statements made on Twitter (or ‘twibles’ as they are being referred to in the US).  Often scope of publication can be an issue with comments made on the Internet, however publication via Twitter is easier to prove than on discussion forums because Tweets are automatically sent to all ‘followers’ of that Twitter account using a system known as ‘push publication’.  These followers can include the press and other individuals who might decide to ‘re-tweet’ the allegation. Moreover, if strategically placed hashtags are used in the Tweet it will almost certainly be viewed by even more people – a factor that ought to be reasonably foreseeable as it is the precise reason why people use hashtags.

The case of Cairns v Modi ([2010] EWHC 2859 (QB)) in November last year provides some guidance on how the Court will approach the issue of publication of defamatory comments on Twitter. In that case Mr Justice Tugendhat found that there had been a real and substantial tort committed within the jurisdiction as a result of the publication of a Tweet in January 2010 by Mr Modi, who at the time was chairman and commissioner of the Indian Premier League and Vice President of the Board of Cricketing Control for India, which alleged that Mr Cairns, a well known cricketer, was guilty of match fixing. The judge accepted the Claimant’s submission that the republication of the Tweet was likely to have been substantial:

The Defendant and the Claimant are both very prominent in the world of cricket, which is itself a sport with a very large following in the jurisdiction. And the allegation in the Tweet is sensational, and upon a matter which was topical at the time the Tweet was broadcast.  So the Court may infer that publication in the jurisdiction was much greater than the estimated figures for followers who received direct communication from the Defendant”.

With the massive rise in popularity in Twitter, the ever-increasing technological methods of tweeting and the possibilities it offers to users, this is an area ripe for legal challenges and they are not limited to twibles. For example, fans can now not only ‘follow’ their celebrity idols, but also directly comment to and about them to a potentially massive audience – as a result harassment injunctions and privacy claims, all potentially fraught with jurisdiction issues, may just be around the corner…