Putting your mouth where your money is

Russell Wangersky
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Interesting news from the other side of the ocean, where a British Conservative Party official, falsely accused of child abuse, has threatened legal action against over 10,000 Twitter users: not only against those who tweeted allegations about him, but those who retweeted the allegations as well.

The official has already settled libel cases with the BBC and Britain’s ITV, but is going after tweeters who even mentioned the media reports.

How far is the reach of the suit? Well, those with 500 or fewer followers can fill in a form, apologize and are asked to donate money and pay what the New York Times describes as a small administrative charge.

People with 500 or fewer followers are really small potatoes in Twitter-land, but the case points out something that many people probably don’t think about — that, every time you put up 140 characters of witty Twitter, you’re publishing something. And the current action is a legal slap on the wrist that may end up being much more.

Keep in mind that British libel law is different; it’s easier for a complainant to win a case under British law than here. But, that being said, it’s an interesting bellwether about what you can say — and can’t say — when you decide to publish something.

At The Telegram, I handle letters to the editor and also approve comments on the web. With the letters, I can edit out portions that are libellous and sometimes still salvage the letter.

On The Telegram’s website, my options are more limited: I can approve comments, or not approve them. Editing offensive, libellous or racist portions out of online comments isn’t an option.

Every now and then, handling letters, I run into a letter where, when I suggest a part is libellous, the letter’s author will say, “Leave it in. Let ’em sue me.”

Then, I have to point out as politely as I can that part of my job is also protecting the paper from lawsuits, and that we won’t publish libellous material. (The other part of the equation is that no one ever just sues the letter-writer. They sue everyone involved in the publication of material, from the newspaper’s owners on down and, win or lose, court cases are always expensive.)

Dealing with libellous comments is practically a daily occurrence; there are on-and-off spurts of libel in letters to the editor, but in the bearpit that is the comments section of a newspaper, things are not just petty and offensive — they’re also regularly actionable and you have to be on your guard all the time. (Woe betide the web comment monitor who fails to realize that a comment about a public

figure’s “constant cold” is also an innuendo about possible cocaine abuse.) Every now and then, someone decides it’s time to rattle a cage or two — or else they just get fed up with the abuse, as former premier Danny Williams is purported to have done — and lawsuits fly.

And that’s why it’s really worth thinking about just what pithy attack witticism you want to author and slap up on a website, whether it’s on The Telegram’s site or on your own Twitter account. (Even your own anonymized Twitter account — the courts have ordered Internet companies to help track down the authors of anonymous postings in some cases.)

The definition of publishing something is pretty wide. Posting on a Twitter account, though, is pretty clearly an example of publishing, and with that opportunity comes more than a little responsibility.

There isn’t anyone to watch your back or to edit out the dangers, and that can mean an unexpected court expense.

Now, even launching a libel case is an expensive, time-consuming and slow process; for many, it’s easier to ignore the offence than to go through the bother of legal action — not to mention the fact that every time the court case comes up anywhere, you essentially live through the libel all over again.

But if someone has deep enough pockets — or if they’re simply pissed off enough — they can and will go after the people who have published offensive material. And here’s the thing — they can, and will, win.

And 140 characters could be very, very expensive.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor.

Email: rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: British Conservative Party, BBC, New York Times

Geographic location: Britain

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Recent comments

  • EDfromRED
    November 29, 2012 - 06:52

    So is that why the news has endless perp walk coverage of poor, petty criminals, while those with millions are free to do as they please? I guess if I win the lotto, I just have to hire a law firm, and go on a crime spree without fear of being shown/mentioned on the news. I think the local media needs to flex it's constitutional muscle more. Where is the court challenge from them for Bill C-29? If this Bill had restricted the mainland or American media from covering an issue, a challenge would sought in the courts before the ink was dry. Maybe fear of losing lucrative Government agency advertising dollars fuels this lack of action?

  • Virginia Waters
    November 28, 2012 - 11:40

    I agree with David - what the heck was that? Does she have a cold, maybe?

  • crista
    November 28, 2012 - 09:46

    this is true but you and your bussiness provide a bussiness and a service to let society know what goes on with government and bussiness and it's services and society is not aware of serious problems and not to mislead the problems that go on in society in the best of your ability and your staff, yes you say i will sue you that's why you have reporter's and a legal department so you can decide what is true and what is not true other that, it is reading between the lines???? you are a media and not the only media that reports news to inform people of public interest and if that is not done right you are and not only you are leaving your selves wide open for legal action there is a system going on in society that prevents people from getting the truths this is the way it suppose to go if you have the truths,the media and the news are suppose to inform the misconducts that go on in society if not you could be sued now if what reason are stopped from doing your job what is one suppose to do about that???? you and others know very well that goes on, not beening sarcastic how does any thing get done,all one does is get in a system like that all that does is confuse,one can only say do your job and stopped the bullying and the ones that done it in the past will be brought out for what they really are and then the right ones get dealt with and they can not come back at you and if so they can be stopped yes it is true it is not as easy as it sounds so you use good judgement,and if it is called a job if that is what you are claiming in your article then you can not be sued and the ones that use the web site as a past time for there own reasons you can not be sued????

    • david
      November 28, 2012 - 11:17

      ....What the heck was that ?

  • upthecreek
    November 28, 2012 - 07:08

    I suppose one could risk a lawsuit if one suggested that a certain public figure suffers from Narcissistic Personalty Disorder and quite likely is a megalomaniac?