Expert Warns Of More Chat Room Libel Awards
A landmark legal ruling ordering a woman to pay £10,000 in damages for defamatory comments posted on an internet chat room site could trigger a rush of similar lawsuits, a leading libel lawyer warned today.
Michael Smith, a Ukip activist who stood for the Portsmouth North seat last year, became the first person to win damages yesterday after being accused of being a “sex offender” and “racist blogger” on a Yahoo! discussion site.
Mr Smith, 53, from Fareham in Hampshire, sued Tracy Williams, of Oldham, for comments posted after she joined a rightwing online forum.
Judge Alistair MacDuff said in the high court that Ms Williams was “particularly abusive” and “her statements demonstrated that … she had no intention of stopping her libellous and defamatory behaviour”.
Although ISPs have paid out for hosting defamatory comments, this case is thought to be the first time an individual has been found to have committed libel on a internet chat site.
“The obvious and immediate potential ramification is that there will be more cases like this,” said Richard Shillito, a partner at the law firm Farrer & Co. “One sees on these sites particularly unrestrained comments that people make in the heat of the moment without thinking of the legal consequences.
“A lot of people post anonymously but it is possible to find out people’s identity. I think people should read this judgment as a warning to be more careful about their comments.”
Mr Smith, a chartered surveyor, said Ms Williams’ initially “innocent enough” views hardened after they expressed vastly different opinions over the Iraq war. Together with another chat room user, who settled for £12,500 out of court with Mr Smith, they began a campaign of words against him and his family.
“I’m happy with the judge’s ruling, but firms hosting online chat rooms should be prepared to get involved and step in to moderate defamatory statements. I considered suing Yahoo! but their discussion board is hosted in the US and falls outside UK law.
“I contacted them many times and all they suggested was that I talk directly with the moderator of the forum. It wasn’t until a lot later that they agreed to remove the offending posts from the site.
Yahoo! was not immediately able to comment.