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Bloggers Beware – Clare Brown

BLOGBlogs and their related video based versions ‘vlogs’ remain a popular way for individuals, organisations, and companies to communicate with others. Blogs are often linked to other networks, such as Twitter or LinkedIn; new content can be promoted to followers and friends. It takes minimal effort to produce a professional looking blog and generate a number of regular readers.

The most popular platforms are WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr, which are designed to be easy to use. No programming or technical expertise is required. A variety of sophisticated applications known as ‘plug-ins’ can turn a blog into a shop front, an interactive company advert, a way for a school to reach out to alumni, or even a membership only discussion site. With over 42 million blogs on WordPress alone (2012 stats), the number of blogs available is staggering. Of course, only a tiny number are controversial or problematic but there are complex legal issues around both inadvertent and intentional misuse.

The worry for some commentators is that so-called hyperlocal websites/blogs are replacing the decreasing independent local press ‘slowly and intermittently’. Trained journalists are now being replaced by anyone with access to the internet. Using subscriptions, freedom of information requests, the relaxation of the filming/reporting of public meetings, us ordinary people are able to read, comment and make assumptions about figures in authority. All this information – both good and bad – can be made public on blogs, and litigation involving blogs and harassment has already begun.

The judge in Coulson and others v Wilby; Reed v Hofschroer [2014] EWHC 3404 (QB) was careful to maintain the balance between freedom of speech and the “utterly oppressive” personal abuse by the two harassers. Hofschoer had written blog posts accusing Reed of covering up for child abusers, lacking any sense of decency, morality or integrity, and being a known and habitual liar. It was held that Wilby and Hofschoer had pursued a course of conduct that amounted to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 s.1 – the on-going publication on a website of their names, in the knowledge that it would inevitably come to their attention, constituted harassment on at least two or more occasions.

The second case is a good example of hyperlocal citizen journalism gone very wrong, and has been widely reported in the press. Thompson v James [2014] EWCA Civ 600 and its earlier manifestations, involved the chief executive of a local authority and an aggrieved local tax payer. Thompson started a blog on which she posted material highly critical of the local authority. These imputations of corrupt behaviour led to the claimant – funded by tax payers – suing the blogger for libel, and Thomson having to pay substantial damages. Unsurprisingly, the court investigating the term ‘slush fund’ found that it was indeed defamatory in the context of Thompson’s blog.

These cases would suggest that in future judges will take a dim view of bloggers airing grievances and making unsubstantiated public accusations about authority figures. By their very nature, blogs are usually collections of longer statements and so it is harder to defend actions when libellous material has been published over a period of time. Generally – and there are notable exceptions – journalists and newspaper editors know how to stay within the law with their stories. Bloggers must realise that they are subject to the same journalistic laws, and be aware of adverse consequences should they harass and/or make libellous accusations. Every blogger should beware using their blog as a platform for personal invective.

Clare Brown, Library and Information Manager, is a member of the Cyber Investigation Unit at Collyer Bristow LLP.

1 Comment

  1. sdbast

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