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.