Arrest over Facebook post naming Michael Le Vell accuser highlights comment risks for publishers

The arrest of a man on suspicion of posting identity details about Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell’s alleged victim on Facebook is a clear warning to online publishers.

Le Vell was cleared today after being accused of committing a number of sexual offences against a child.

The man, 45 was seized on suspicion of breaching the Sexual Offences Amendment Act. Greater Manchester Polices have also questioned two other men in relation to similar posts social networks. And they confirmed this morning that they are monitoring UGC on news websites too.

A Greater Manchester Police spokesman said: “We take these matters very seriously. We are monitoring social networks and people are reporting matters to us so it is simply not worth the risk."

Newspaper and magazine websites with message boards can be vulnerable to criminal prosecution if a reader prejudices a trial, or reveals the ID of a sex offence victim, or anyone else who has legal anonymity.

Operators are protected by the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002

The regulations are better known for protecting media website operators from libel actions. But they protect operators if readers break any other laws – like the Sexual Offences Act – provided the message boards are not moderated, and potentially illegal posts are removed quickly if there is a complaint.

If the boards are moderated, the operators can face prosecution, the same as the men in the Le Vell case.

User generated content can easily catch media websites off guard.

I have some clients who pre-moderate content, and I advise them to remove message boards on crime stories when someone is charged with a criminal offence. The risks are probably too high, especially with a fairly trigger-happy Attorney General like Dominic Grieve.

Problems can also emerge when sites’ content management systems automatically add a message board to every story that is uploaded.

I have known publishers come unstuck when they did not even realise that visitors were commenting on a sensitive story.

My advice to sites that pre-moderate UGC is to set the CMS’ default position to ‘no message board’.

Cleland Thom is a consultant in media law

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