Anonymous users of online forums today became more prone to the threat of libel action as a result of a new High Court ruling in a test case brought by a top football club.
Sheffield Wednesday FC won a High Court order forcing the owner of the 'Owlstalk' web forum to hand over the e-mail addresses of fans who posted messages criticising the club's directors under online pseudonyms.
The move sets a worrying precedent for the owners of football chat websites, where fans feel free to vent their fury at underachieving clubs under the apparent protection of anonymity. And it could have wider implications to any who run web forums.
The club, its chairman Dave Allen, chief executive Kaven Walker and five directors took action against Neil Hargreaves, who runs the site at Owlstalk.com, claiming Hargreaves had permitted fans posting there to 'pursue a sustained campaign of vilification'against them.
Earlier this month, Allan launched a separate libel case in which he sought an order to force the BBC to reveal the names of two users of a Radio Five Live football forum.
In the Owlstalk case, Judge Richard Parkes QC has now ordered Hargreaves to hand over the e-mail addresses of three users – 'halfpint', 'ian' and 'vaughan' – whose postings he said "may reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour on the part of the claimants".
He said the club intended to take libel proceedings against the individuals concerned.
"In the case of those postings, the claimants' entitlement to take action to protect their right to reputation outweighs, in my judgment, the right of the authors to maintain their anonymity and their right to express themselves freely," the judge said.
'I take into account in this context the restrictions on the use of defamatory language which the rules of the defendant's bulletin bard impose, restrictions which in the case of these postings appear to have been breached.'
However, the judge refused to extend the order to a further eight members of the site, whose posts he said "border on the trivial", were "plainly intended as jokes and unlikely to be taken seriously" or constituted "no more than saloon-bar moanings about the way in which the club is managed".
Ordering these users' identities, the judge said, "would be disproportionate and unjustifiably intrusive."
He ordered the club and directors to pay £9,000 in costs, after they agreed to pay Mr Hargreaves' reasonable costs of compliance with the order. He had sought almost £23,000.