Libel laws tweaked for the Twitter age
The Supreme Court has tweaked libel laws in response to people ranting online via sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
For the “fair comment” defence to be used in a libel case, the writer previously needed to detail enough facts to let readers make up their own minds about what was being said.
As anyone who’s logged onto Twitter during X-Factor or a football game can attest, online commenters often rant away without actually explaining the background of their topic, thanks to the real-time nature of social-networking sites, as well as Twitter’s 140 character limit.
The law has now been updated with a defence called “honest comment,” following a libel suit between a band and their promoter, in which the latter called the group “not professional” online without fully explaining why.
Millions now talk, and thousands comment in electronically transmitted words, about recent events of which they have learned from television or the internet
In the judgement, Lord Walker said that “the defence of fair comment (now to be called honest comment) originated in a narrow form in a society very different from today’s. It was a society in which writers, artists and musicians were supposed to place their works, like wares displayed at market, before a relatively small educated and socially elevated class, and it was in the context of published criticism of their works that the defence developed.”
“The creation of a common base of information shared by those who watch television and use the internet has had an effect which can hardly be overstated,” he added. “Millions now talk, and thousands comment in electronically transmitted words, about recent events of which they have learned from television or the internet.”
Now, anyone being sued for libel can use the defense for comments made in passing reference. “The test for identifying the factual basis of honest comment must be flexible enough to allow for this type of case, in which a passing reference to the previous night’s celebrity show would be regarded by most of the public, and may sometimes have to be regarded by the law, as a sufficient factual basis,” Walker said.