Monday, November 09, 2009

A Boy Named Sue

As someone who knows very little about libel law, I was a bit worried by this article a couple of weeks ago in the Times about bloggers being sued for libel. Apparently our laws give us much less right to free speech than, for example in America; so suing for libel here is becoming increasingly popular for those able to afford it. Apparently it costs a fortune to defend yourself against such a claim. Why they can't be dealt with by a magistrate in half an hour is beyond me.

The author Simon Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association, who claim to be able to treat children for various ailments such as asthma and colic by manipulating their spines. He wrote in the Guardian that there is no evidence for this claim and they decided to try and silence him.

Other examples include the website Bad Psychics who apparently received a legal threat from some disgruntled psychic and took down their offending article. (If a psychic threatens to take you to court then no doubt they know what the outcome will be, so it's probably best to back down.)

The Society of Homeopaths took exception to Andy Lewis' Quackometer website which investigates dubious medical practices and threatened him with a libel suit, which seems to have had more effect than their medicines.

If everyone I have written unfavourably about decides to sue me, then the courts will grind to a halt and I will have to flee the country and live where the idea of free speech is more valued. I could perhaps set myself up as a magnet therapist, but I'd probably attract the wrong sort of people...


The TEFL Tradesman said...

All I've received so far for my libelous blog is a badly written letter from an expensive lawyer, plus a few odd threats from disgruntled geezers, promising to rearrange my skeletal system.

As these have all arrived by e-mail, I guess I'm still safe from prosecution and near-death experiences... so far.

Tom Paine said...

Writing unfavourably about someone is not defamation per se. There's no need to panic.

For what you write to be libelous (Libel is defamation in permanent, e.g. written, form) it must lower the reputation of the person you write about "in the eyes of a right thinking member of the community." Your defences if accused of libel include:

1. Justification (i.e. it was true). You will need to back that up though. Reasonable belief that it was true is generally enough and an amateur like a blogger will be held to a lower test of "reasonableness" (e.g. you read it in one newspaper report). A professional journalist would need a better source or sources.

2. Fair comment on a matter of public interest (i.e. maybe it wasn't true, but it was a fair enough thing to say in the hurly-burly of political debate). This is most useful against politicians etc., who have chosen to join the fray.

Mere vulgar abuse is not defamatory. Old Holborn et al are probably safe most of the time because no right thinking member of the community would think less of their targets for being called rude names.

Privilege (e.g. Parliamentary privilege) is also a defence, but not one available to bloggers!

Libel cases are expensive to bring too, so you are mostly at risk when dealing with the mighty, but defence no. 2 gives you an advantage there. The claimant also has to prove loss. Being a small blogger, depressing though it is most of the time, helps in that case! If you did the claimant no harm, he's wasting the court's time and may come off badly.

The best "defence" is probably poverty. Not to be "worth suing" is perhaps the greatest freedom of all. Don't count on that too much though. A vindictive libelled person might just bankrupt you for revenge.

A moment's thought by a chap as intelligent as you before hitting "publish" should keep you out of trouble. A swiftly-offered apology published with the same prominence as the original piece will help if you do face a claim.