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“He tried to strangle me” – Social Media and Defamation Law

Is it defamatory to accuse somebody of strangling you?  The legal answer, as is so often the case is: it depends. 

On 3 April 2019, the Supreme Court overturned earlier rulings of the High Court (and, later, the Court of Appeal) and held that a woman was not liable for defaming her ex-husband by accusing him of strangling her in statements made on Facebook (Stocker v Stocker [2019] UKSC 17).

The case, which marks the end of a 5 year legal battle between the parties, demonstrates the importance of considering the potential legal implications of what you are posting about others online. How might the people who read your online comments (and, if legal action was taken against you, a Judge) interpret the meaning of your words?

Background

Mrs Stocker was ‘friends’ on Facebook with Mr Stocker’s new partner. Mrs Stocker had published the “strangling” allegation complained about on Mr Stocker’s new partner’s Facebook ‘status’. The status and comments were visible to the new partner’s Facebook friends.

Mrs Stocker also said that her husband had been removed from the house following a number of threats that he had made against her; that there were some “gun issues”; and that the police felt that he had broken the terms of a non-molestation order.

Mr Stocker commenced a court claim for defamation in relation to these statements and the words “he tried to strangle me”. Mr Stocker alleged that Mrs Stocker’s posts falsely suggested he had attempted to kill her.

Decisions of the High Court and the Court of Appeal – Mrs Stocker is liable

What does “tried to strangle me” mean exactly?

The High Court Judge looked at the definition of the verb “strangle” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The High Court found that the ordinary reasonable reader would have understood Mrs Stocker’s words to mean that Mr Stocker had attempted to kill her, and the overall effect of the words was that Mr Stocker was a dangerous man. Because the judge found this to be untrue (i.e. that Mr Stocker did not attempt to kill Mrs Stocker), the judge said that Mrs Stocker could not rely on the defence that her words were true. It is worth noting that the High Court found, after hearing the parties’ evidence, that Mrs Stocker had “proved some justification for the words used in the Facebook postings”. The High Court found that Mrs Stocker was liable for the publication of the words and that they were defamatory.

Mrs Stocker subsequently asked the Court of Appeal to re-consider the High Court decision. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court and said that Mrs Stocker was liable in defamation to her ex-husband for the words she had published on the Facebook wall.

Mrs Stocker then appealed to the Supreme Court. She said, amongst other things, that the meaning of the words was not as the High Court and the Court of Appeal had found and that she was entitled to rely on the defamation defence of “truth”.

Decision of the Supreme Court – Mrs Stocker is not liable

All five of the Supreme Court judges hearing the appeal decided that the previous decisions of the High Court and the Court of Appeal were wrong and should be overturned.

The Supreme Court commented on the “danger” of the use of dictionary definitions to determine the meaning of an alleged defamatory statement. It was stated that, in defamation claims “the meaning is not fixed by technical, linguistically precise dictionary definitions, divorced from the context in which the statement was made”. The meaning must be determined according to how the words would be understood by “the ordinary reasonable reader” – i.e. potentially, you or your friends on social media!

Essentially, the Supreme Court found that the words used by Mrs Stocker had a less serious meaning than the lower courts had found. The Supreme Court found that the ordinary, reasonable reader of the Facebook post would have interpreted the meaning to be that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the throat and applied force to her neck rather than that he had tried deliberately to kill her.

Therefore, because they found that her words had a less serious meaning, the Supreme Court found that Mrs Stocker was able to rely on the defence of truth.

The Supreme Court commented that the fact that the statements were made on Facebook was “critical”. Lord Kerr, who provided the written judgment, stated, “the 21st century has brought with it a new class of reader: the social media user”. The Supreme Court recognised that typical users of social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter do not debate the meaning of words read on those websites like lawyers in a court room do – they tend to scroll through content on their “feeds” quickly.

Comment

The Judgment of the Supreme Court in this case is interesting as it explains the view of the Supreme Court (the highest court in the country) as to how meaning in defamation claims should be decided in the context of statements made on social media.

It is clear that the Supreme Court’s view is that comments made on Facebook or Twitter should be treated differently to statements made in other less informal forums – because the readers of statements made on social media write, read and interpret words differently in this context.  This decision has echoes of previous decisions which referred to “saloon bar” banter.

Some have welcomed this decision as supporting the right to freedom of expression online and other reports in the press suggest that this decision represents, in particular, a victory for the freedom of speech of abused women.

However, the words used in online comments and tweets and how those words may be interpreted should remain an important consideration for all users of social media. Earlier on in the case, it was argued that Mrs Stocker believed (albeit mistakenly) that some of the Facebook comments had been made in private. It is therefore also important to bear in mind the potential audience of your online comments.

Although she will no doubt welcome the Judgment of the Supreme Court, Mrs Stocker found herself fighting a libel claim for 5 years, and if she had lost the case she would presumably have had to pay a substantial sum in damages and legal costs.

If in doubt – don’t click ‘post’.

The media and reputation management team at JMW Solicitors routinely advise on issues concerning defamation. For expert legal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact one of the team.

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