In March 2012, in the first twitter libel case to be decided in England, a former New Zealand cricket captain was awarded £90,000 damages plus £400,000 legal costs. The libel in question was a tweet sent by the defendant alleging that My Cairns was involved in match fixing.
What is Libel?
Libel exists under English law when:
- comments are published; and
- communicated to someone other than the person being defamed; and
- there is no defence to the publication. (i.e. that the comments are true or expressed as an opinion).
How will Compensation be Calculated?
The English courts will determine the amount of compensation to be awarded.
The level of damages in this case was high, even though the tweet was probably only forwarded to 65 people, as:
- Mr Cairns was a professional cricketer of good character and reputation; and
- His reputation could be quickly “poisoned” via the information spreading quickly over the Internet.
In addition the defendant’s failure to apologise to Mr Cairns was taken into consideration in assessing the level of compensation.
Defendants often try to prevent claims being made in England where one or both parties are not English or there is a foreign element to the case, by alleging “libel tourism”. In this case the argument was rejected. The court stated that England, not India, was the appropriate court as Mr Cairn:
- and his children went to school in England;
- played cricket for an English county cricket team; and
- had lived in England since 2010.
How to Avoid Libellous Tweets
This case establishes that sending a tweet (or any other online comment such as a blog) carries the same risk of libel as if the comment had been published on paper. Therefore organisations who use, or allow their employees to tweet in their name, should take the same precautions to limit their exposure to a potential claim for libel via tweets as they would for comments on paper or in emails. Such risk assessment should include regularly reviewing the organisations tweet ethics and how they want to use Twitter.
The basic question an organisation should be asking itself is:
- does it want to tweet information before confirming its validity; or
- should it wait to tweet until all information has been verified.
The particular approach that an organisation chooses will depend upon the business sector that it is operating in. However, organisations should bear in mind that customers may well assess the organisation’s credibility and reliability based upon their approach to tweeting.
Tweeting aside, the fact that information is being published in a tweet is irrelevant – as an organisation should always carefully consider what they are saying, what they know and what they don’t know when making public comments in order to avoid libel claims.
Not just a UK Problem
Although the above is the first case to be decided in England, last year a councillor in Wales, was ordered to pay £3,000 plus legal costs to a political rival for posting a libellous comment on Twitter in which he claimed that his opponent had been removed from a polling station by police.
Additionally, in the USA an NBA referee sued the Associated Press and one of its sport writers who tweeted that the referee was calling fouls to compensate for bad calls. The case (which may have settled out of court) involved a claim for $75,000 in damages and an application for a court order to delete the tweet.