Defamatory messageboard comments should be treated as slander and not libel, Justice Eady ruled recently, significantly changing the way online comments are dealt with by the courts.
As The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond points out, Eady said in a case concerning an obscure financial messageboard that the comments were much closer to slander “than the usual, more permanent kind of communications found in libel actions”.
Eady said that because bulletin board users acted so informally and without inhibition to each other, the conversation was usually casual and could not be treated as normal, potentially libellous, communication. The posters were hiding behind their “avatars”, online pesudonyms or personae, a “disinhibiting factor” for Eady.
He did say it wasn’t the case that “blogging cannot ever form the basis of a libel action”, but as Richmond says, it’s not clear whether Eady means blogging or simply commenting online.
Slander, as NCTJ students will (or should) know, is harder prove in English courts than libel – whereas in libel damage is assumed and the defendent has to defend itself, slander must be proved by the claimant.
There are four exceptions. Damage doesn’t need to be proved when a slanderous comment: imputes that someone has committed a crime punishable by death; that they are suffering from a contagious disease (leprosy, VD etc…); suggests unchasity in a woman or any statement calculated to disparage someone in their office, trade, calling or profession.