Friday, 17 July 2009

Defamation on the internet - Court order can be obtained requiring site operator to disclose a commentators identity

Damages For Chat Room Insults
By Rizwan A. Yusuf, Solicitor, Eversheds, Direct Dial: +44 (0) 113 200 4700
08 May 2006 (via Legal
Michael Keith-Smith, a former Conservative party member was recently awarded £10,000 damages in a libel action brought after insults posted in an internet chat room.

According to reports Keith-Smith was debating on the Iraq war on a discussion board, when Tracy Williams, who used a pseudonym to hide her identity, labelled Keith-Smith, a sexual offender, racist bigot, Nazi and other insults. Keith-Smith obtained a court order forcing Yahoo!, who hosted the discussion board, to reveal the identity of Williams, and then successfully sued for damages.

In assessing the damages, the judge took account of Keith-Smith's upstanding reputation and his commitment to work with educational institutions and charities. £5,000 was awarded as general damages. The remaining £5,000 was awarded as aggravated damages due to the behaviour and contempt of Williams. Williams was also ordered to pay costs of £7,200. Although some observers have commented that this case will open the floodgates to similar actions and place constraints on freedom of speech, the judgment confirms that the law of libel applies to the Internet as equally as any other medium.
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From Times Online
March 21, 2006
UKIP candidate wins £10,000 for internet libel
By Philippe Naughton and PA News
A prominent member of the UK Independence Party won an unprecedented £10,000 in libel damages today from a woman who waged an abusive campaign against him on an internet bulletin board.

Michael Keith Smith, who contested the Portsmouth North constituency at the last general election, brought High Court proceedings against Tracy Williams, who was a contributor to the same Yahoo! discussion board.

Ms Williams, of Tomlinson Close, Oldham, Lancashire, used a pseudonym to post claims that the 53-year-old chartered surveyor was a "nonce", a sexual offender, a racist bigot and a Nazi.

Addressing him as "Lardarse" or "Lardbrain", she also alleged that he had sexually harassed a female co-worker, had been charged with soliciting boys and cottaging and that he was a sexual deviant of the most perverted kind.

In June 2004, Mr Keith Smith, of Castle Street, Portchester, Fareham, Hants, obtained a court order requiring the site operator to disclose Ms Williams’s identity. Legal proceedings then started which only served to provoke her into more "frenzied abuse", said Judge Alistair Macduff.

He said that Ms Williams, who was not in court and did not file a defence to the action, had not sought to justify her statements which were clearly seriously defamatory. They continued well into 2005.

Assessing damages, he said that Mr Keith Smith, who had given expert evidence in the courts and served on committees for charities and schools, had a reputation of some integrity.

He said that although the libels were available to the whole world through the internet, it was likely that few people had read them and many of those who did would have dismissed them as "ramblings".

Nevertheless, he awarded Mr Keith Smith £5,000 general damages plus £5,000 aggravated damages to reflect the way Ms Williams - who had met a request for an apology with contempt - had behaved.

He granted an injunction preventing the publication of the same or similar libels and ordered Ms Williams to pay the costs of the action, which Mr Keith Smith put at £7,200.

It is believed to be the first time that the High Court has awarded damages for defamatory comments posted on an internet bulletin board, although a retired teacher won £1,250 in damages at Lincoln County Court in May 2002 for comments posted about him on the website Friends Reunited by a former pupil.

Mark Thomson, a partner at libel specialists Carter-Ruck, said that there had been many similar complaints about defamation on the internet. But he said: "Most of these cases go away quite quickly - people pull down the allegation - so it's quite rare that people actually sue over internet comments."

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