November 09, 2007

University staff victims of anonymous and defamatory blogs

'We have previously reported on the growing amount of comment that appears in blogs and other postings on the internet about universities and individuals within them, usually members of academic staff or senior officers of the university. Sometimes remarks that are posted are disparaging, inaccurate and seriously defamatory of the university and individuals within it. It can be very hurtful to be on the receiving end of such libellous comments and dealing with it causes even more stress to those involved.

As the web postings are usually anonymous, it can be difficult to know what to do about them if it is not possible to resolve the matter through dialogue with the website operator. Whilst it is often possible to persuade the operator to remove the offending content, in certain circumstances it may also be necessary to pursue the authors themselves, and operators will not be willing to disclose the identity of their members voluntarily.

On 18 October, the High Court gave some guidance on when it might make an order against a website operator requiring them to disclose information about anonymous postings. The Claimants, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and others, wanted subscriber information for a number of contributors to an unofficial supporters club relating to 14 web entries which they considered to be defamatory. The judge refused to order the information sought in relation to 9 of the 14 web entries.

There are 3 requirements for such a disclosure order to be made: 1. a wrong must have been committed or be imminent; 2. the order must be necessary for a defamation action to be brought; and 3. the party against whom the order is sought must have facilitated the wrong and be in possession of the necessary information. Requirements 2 and 3 will usually be satisfied (as they were in this case). Requirement 1 is likely to be trickier. The test is whether the web entry is "arguably defamatory". Even if the postings satisfy the requirement, the Court has discretion to refuse to grant an order and takes into account the seriousness and strength of the case. The judge found that 9 of the postings were unlikely to have been taken seriously or result in quantifiable harm and refused to order the disclosure of information about them.

The Court had to balance the website members' rights to anonymity and freedom of expression against the claimant's right to protect their reputation. The Court regarded the other 5 postings which contained allegations of greed and dishonesty as tipping the balance in favour of the claimants getting an order.

The case illustrates some of the difficulties that will need to be overcome if formal action is to be contemplated. The guidance is really interesting. It's possibly the first case of online defamation we've had in this country where the right to privacy has outweighed the right to protect a reputation simply because defamatory comments were trivial.

The judge said it was relevant "to consider whether the words complained of were, even if strictly defamatory, more than a trivial attack which would not be taken seriously...I do not think it would be right to make an order for the disclosure of the identities of users who have posted messages which are barely defamatory or little more than abusive or likely to be understood as jokes - that, it seems to me, would be disproportionate and unjustifiably intrusive.

From: Pinsent Mason Universities Legal Briefing, October 2007

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful!

I would still recommend that nobody ever posts "anonymous" comments over which they can not stand - any blog comment (including this one) is easily traced by IP, MAC and other identifying data.