Dealing with defamatory posts on your website forum or blog

One of the many legal risks facing you as a web publisher comes from the law of libel: as publisher, you may be liable not only for your own writings, but also for the defamatory comments that users make on your website.

Identifying defamatory posts

How can you identify whether a particular post is defamatory or not? 

Over the years the courts have put forward a lot of different tests.  A defamatory publication has been defined as: a publication “lowering the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking people generally” (Sim v Stretch); “a publication, without justification or lawful excuse, which is calculated to injure the reputation of another, by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” (Cropp v. Tilney); a publication tending to make a person be “shunned and avoided”  (Youssoupoff v. MGM Pictures).  A wide range of publications may be defamatory – for example, allegations that a person is a thief or a liar, an idiot or fool, corrupt, immoral, an adulterer, carrying a disease, bankrupt or unable to pay his or her debts.

So, any comment on your website that may have a negative effect on a person’s reputation (other than a trivial effect) could be problematic.

Standard defences

Of course, there are range of defences which may be available to web publishers in respect of third party defamatory comments.

Probably the most important defence is justification (aka truth).  If a defendant can prove that a publication is true, then the defendant will have a complete defence to a libel action.  However, it can be difficult, not to mention expensive, to prove the truth of an allegation.  As a web publisher, then, you should be wary of relying upon a justification defence.

The defence of “fair comment” is closely related to justification.  This defence may be available where the offending statement is a statement of comment rather than fact, is based upon facts which can be proven to be true, and is made in good faith, without malice, on a matter of public interest.  Again, a web publisher will often be in a poor position to assess the applicability of a fair comment defence in relation to a statement made by a website user.

In addition there is a special public interest defence (sometimes called Reynolds-style privilege) which could in principle be applicable.  However, the scope of this defence is uncertain, and it is not entirely clear how it may apply to website forum or blog comments. In summary, a web publisher should only rely upon one of the standard defences to a libel action where the applicability of the defence is clear (e.g. in the case of an allegation of criminal behaviour, a conviction has been obtained).

Special defences

As well as the standard libel defences, there are special defences under the Ecommerce Directive and the Defamation Act 1996 which may protect web publishers.  I will focus here upon the latter defence.

Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 1996 provides that “In defamation proceedings a person has a defence if he shows that (a) he was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement complained of, (b) he took reasonable care in relation to its publication, and (c) he did not know, and had no reason to believe, that what he did caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement”. This defence should protect a web publisher from defamatory user comments providing the publisher has taken “reasonable care” and has no involvement with or knowledge of the statement. “Reasonable care” may include having terms of use for the forum/comments section of the site which prohibit defamatory posts. In any event, you should act promptly to remove defamatory posts when you become aware of them.

Risk assessment

Of course, some user comments are more risky than others.  E.g. a statement on your widely-read political blog that an litigious MP has takes bribes is more risky, by far, than a statement on a blog read only by your friends that your ex is ugly. The internet would be a smaller place, in more ways than one, if all formally defamatory material was suddenly deleted.

Comments

Hello. Your article grabbed my attention. I’d like to know how this law would apply to a review website where consumers are explicitly invited to leave feedbacks and ratings on products. Does Section 1 of the Defamation Act make all comparison / review websites illegal?  How do such websites protect themselves? Thanks and kind regards.

A review on a website could be actionable in libel if it met the usual criteria: a defamatory imputation, publication, no defence of justification or fair comment, and so on.  Rather than make review websites illegal, Section 1 provides a defence that could protect review websites against some libel claims.

i recently post a post regarding a employer who doesn’t settle up with his contract staff at the agreed time, and warned against others doing work for him. He has now decided to start threatening to sue me and has started hassling my employer to supply confidential information about me. I know 3 people that he has done this to and they are willing to testify what had happened to them, to prove that the statement I made was true. How do you think I would fare in court? Many thanks.

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