Bulletin board posters beware: comment is free – but not from defamation laws.

There have been numerous internet libel cases – notably the libel action by childless doyenne of childrearing, Gina Ford against the website by and for mothers – mumsnet.com – over comments posted about her on its discussion boards. One might be lured into a false sense of security that one is able to comment, vent ones opinions and even anger in cyberspace without comeback – not so. Defamation laws, while aged and less than satisfactory, do extend to cyberspace any ‘derogatory’ comments ‘published’. Just because a comment is on a message board for a seemingly closed community on a particular website does not mean its reach and potential effect should be underestimated.

Defamation law is engaged by the act of publication and the fact that the material published has the potential to lower the person being referred to in the ‘estimation of right thinking people generally’. So if someone’s reputation has the potential to be lessened as a result of what’s published they have the makings of a defamation action.

As the Telegraph reports this week, those contributing to financial bulletin boards may think they are debating what to long and short in the city but in doing so they are exposing themselves to litigation and a series of cases are winging their way to court to prove the point.

As Mediabeak knows from time spent at the coalface of broadcast journalism compliance, a seemingly innocuous statement that, for example, the lack of strategic focus (of X company) seems to be affecting the share price, can within minutes attract an enraged phone call from the company’s head office demanding an explanation.

So as libel law stands – unless you are satisfied that you can prove that what you have said, asserted, suggested or alluded to is true, you could be looking at a big bill for any comment you can’t prove to be true – or at least based on facts that are substantially true (thereby possibly availing yourself of a ‘fair comment’ defence).

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