Courtney Love has successfully defended her former lawyer’s US Twitter libel claim – ‘Twibel’ as it been labelled by media and on social media. The case has been lauded as breaking new ground in defining the nexus of social media and defamation.
But while the Internet may cross borders, things are different on both sides of the Atlantic. It is doubtful she would have had the same success had the case been heard in London, referred to widely as ‘the libel capital of the world‘.
Love argued that she didn’t intend to send the message worldwide via Twitter, only to a private recipient. But whether you libel someone by mistake or by design usually matters little to the aggrieved party. Sure, if an allegation was made deliberately, falsely and maliciously, then that might make the hurt worse, but the damage to reputation is done when the libel is published to the world at large. For that reason, under the jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales, while motive may impact on the damages a claimant may be awarded, our domestic courts will find the defamer liable where their publication has defamed the aggrieved party – intentionally or not.
The US jury found that Love didn’t know that the information was untrue when she published it. But in Blighty, ignorance is no defence. Deliberately publishing a false libel may aggravate the damages that the claimant is ordered to pay. But simply being ignorant that what you said was untrue won’t get you off the hook – unless you can rely on another defence, such as honest comment or privilege. That you may not have known that what you shouted from the rooftops was untrue, is cold comfort to the victim you have libelled. And the courts on this side of the Pond will be just as keen to do justice and remedy the reputation of the victim who has been defamed, whether you intended to defame them or not.
We may be an ocean apart, but defamation damages US style and UK style are a world apart. While false allegations that a lawyer had been ‘bought off’ are seriously defamatory, ‘over here’ they would never give rise to damages in the millions – what the claimant sought ‘over there’. ‘Over here’ maximum general damages are around £300,000 – unless the claimant can show actual financial loss as a direct result of the publication.
The immediacy of Twitter and its worldwide reach makes it an incredibly popular and powerful tool. But it can be a deadly weapon, able to knock out reputations like a virulent disease. Those caught in the cross fire of defamatory allegations made online – the falsely accused lawyer for one – can have a hard job in restoring their reputation after it has been rubbished across the Internet. Precisely like that fast moving disease, action has to be taken fast and the virus stopped quickly in its tracks. Equal amounts of danger can be caused to those who let loose across the Internet with abandon, resulting in lengthy, time consuming and costly litigation for the publishing defendant who omits to stop and operate brain, before operating the key pad.
Unusually in this case, both sides have seemingly come out the other side with some degree of success: Ms Love has avoided legal liability, a judgment against her and paying substantial damages; her former lawyer has had her reputation restored with the allegations being shown to be untrue.
But that does not mean that you – claimant or defendant – will fare as well. With social media breathing down our necks and beckoning us to sample its sweet delights at every corner, the important thing to remember – for anyone taking on the role of publisher from our work desks at lunchtime, or from our bedrooms at night – is that the law, US or UK, applies to publications on the Internet as it does to publications made in a letter, e-mail, in the mainstream media or across the Internet.
This case does not signal a future of permitting risk free ranting across the Internet with impunity. So, should you feel empowered by Twitter – a little bit celebrity, a tad Rock ‘n’ Roll – remember, you can be as liable as a newspaper editor for your few key strokes. And there is nothing rock ‘n’ roll about having to use up your life long savings or sell your house, to pay for a few seconds of Internet glory.
Amber Melville-Brown is a partner at Withersworldwide specialising in reputation management.
This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced with permission and thanks