Online defamation and libel: know your rights


Defamation is a bit of a hot topic at the moment. Earlier this year, writer and food blogger Jack Monroe won a libel action against Katie Hopkins, and was awarded £24,000 damages, for tweets which suggested that Monroe approved of defacing a war memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in Whitehall. As a result of the fine, Hopkins had to apply for an insolvency agreement to avoid bankruptcy. Libel is a form of defamation.

Other instances where defamation has been brought into the public eye include where high-profile celebrities or businesspeople have brought an injunction to prevent the publication of material that would be damaging to their reputation (so-called gagging orders).

If you have been the victim of online defamation, it’s vital that you know your rights and what you can do to protect your reputation and achieve redress.

What is defamation?

Defamation is an all-encompassing term that covers any statement that damages someone’s reputation.

A defamatory statement can be made in:

  • Verbal form. This is classed as slander because only the spoken word is involved. Slander can be difficult to prove
  • Written form. This is classed as libel. A case for libel is easier to bring because evidence can be documented.

Defamation makes an ordinary person modify their opinions of another person as a direct result of hearing or reading the statement. Under UK law it is possible to defame businesses as well as individuals. A person that has suffered a defamatory statement can sue the person that made the statement under defamation law.

What is libel?

Online defamation tends to involve libel. You could accuse someone of libel against you if they:

  • Sent an email, or an email attachment defaming you, where that email is widely posted or forwarded
  • Made defamatory material available via a web page
  • Posted defamatory material to an email list or newsgroup
  • Streamed defamatory audio or video.

Anyone who actively transmits defamatory material may also be liable as part of any legal action.

What about freedom of expression?

It is accepted in a democratic society that individuals have a right to express their views and preferences. The internet offers great potential to do this.

Defamation is an abuse of this freedom of expression; where untrue statements may have a harmful impact on a person’s reputation.

It is critical to ensure that unfounded claims should not be allowed to damage a person’s reputation, but it is also vital for the law to balance such protections with the rights to freedom of expression. As such, the issue of defamation has become a much contested topic.

Of course, there is a balance to be had between one person’s right to protect their good name and another person’s freedom of speech. However, if someone has made an untrue statement about you, which was published on the internet, and which caused you injury, then you are entirely in your rights to sue for online defamation.

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