Monday, November 26, 2012

Libel Blowback Against U.K. Retweeters & Commenters

Cover of the BBC Year Book 1931
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The New York Times yesterday reported that a retired British politician, who already has collected defamation judgments from the BBC and ITV for accounts wrongly linking him to child sexual abuse, has turned his attention in the plaintiff libel-friendly U.K. toward re-tweeters and others who commented about him on the social media site.

Seventy-year-old Alistair McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer and confidante of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, recovered 185,000 pounds ($296,275) from the BBC after the broadcaster's Newsnight program wrongly linked him, though not directly by name, to alleged child abuse in North Wales. Twitter users were able to identify him based on the BBC story, which the broadcaster conceded was a case of mistaken identity by the accuser. The ITV television network settled McAlpine's libel suit against them for 125,000 pounds ($200,182), according to the Times article.

McAlpine, an author and one-time deputy chair of the Conservative Party (1979-83), is pursuing libel claims against 20 prominent individuals who tweeted about the false child abuse accusations, among them, a comic, a newspaper columnist and the spouse of a prominent politician, the Times reported. Additionally, McAlpine's attorneys have created a Web site that includes a form to complete for lower-profile Tweeters who purportedly defamed him. These tweeters, who have fewer than 500 followers, would be required to apologize, make a charitable donation and be subject to a small administrative fee for their alleged transgressions, which could amount to little more than innuendo or indirect reference to the child abuse allegations.

In the U.S., the tweeters likely would be protected from liability by 47 U.S.C. sec. 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act, which provides: "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Additionally, many states recognize the "wire service rule" as a defense against libel. Under that rule, espoused in cases such as Appleby v. Daily Hampshire Gazette, 395 Mass. 32 (1985), one may avoid liability if one republished a news item from a reputable wire service, such as Associated Press or Reuters, without knowing the item was false or having any reason to doubt the truth of the item on its face, provided the republication does not substantially alter the news item.
Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment:

  1. Wonder if the website for "lower-profile Tweeters" is based on self-disclosure. If so, doubt the honor system will work there.