We're all pretty familiar with the United State's take on defamation. Except for the noticeable lack of a federal anti-SLAPP law, the system works pretty well. Those claiming they've been defamed need to meet some rather high bars to win a case, which is how it should be in a country that has enshrined free speech protections. Without these high bars, it's whoever has the most money or the biggest lawyer, rather than the facts of the case. It's not perfect, but dear lord it is so much better than how it's handled by our former overlords.
Defamation lawsuits are good business in the UK. The law encourages venue shopping, giving mildly-insulted plaintiffs a route to securing a payout for slightly-bruised feelings. It's a mess and it just keeps getting worse. A recent decision [PDF] by a UK court in a libel lawsuit has delivered some jaw-dropping judicial reasoning.
A tweet from a group account used by members of the Ukip party apparently defamed a man by mislabeling him a compatriot of "child groomers." The tweet was composed by one member of the Bristol Ukip. The lawsuit, however, was allowed to be amended to hold someone else completely responsible for this tweet. The end result is one person paying for another person's alleged libel.
A former chairman of a UK Independence Party branch has been ordered to pay £40,000 in damages to a man defamed on Twitter even though he did not write the offending tweet.
Ruling in Zahir Monir v Steve Wood, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin accepted that Steve Wood had not written or approved the tweet, made from the UKIP branch account and picturing a Labour election candidate alongside two men described as 'child grooming taxi drivers'. However he held that the tweet's author, John Langley, was 'quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood'.
The court ruled that the tweet spread far beyond the account's 547 followers. It came to this conclusion despite there being plenty of evidence the tweet was quickly debunked by those who saw it. Zahir Monir called the police after being rebuffed by former Ukip chairman Steve Wood, who refused to take down the tweet or apologize for its content.
Steve Wood made a good argument: he did not compose the tweet nor control the actions of other users of the Bristol Ukip account. The court decided none of these facts mattered since the person who actually tweeted the libel was too broke to pay damages. I am not making this up.
In particular Wood argued that Langley, originally named on the claim form, should be held responsible. The proceedings were served on Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Langley, a self-styled 'maverick' who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name 'Johnny Rockard'.
This runs completely contrary to the American way, which shifts the burden to the person actually doing the dirty, rather than the richest person remotely connected to the offender. This liability shift would be ridiculous enough on its own, but the court's stated reason for doing so sends the signal that it's willing to ensure the wronged get paid, even if the person they're suing is judgment-proof. That's not how the system is supposed to work, but that's apparently how it does work in the UK.
Rulings like this will only encourage plaintiffs to file super-sketchy lawsuits and roll the dice on the UK's terrible, zero-speech-protection laws handing them an unearned win. And with the specter of "fake news" omnipresent, litigation is only going to increase, bringing with it new levels of absurdity as the UK courts apply the country's laws to a variety of heated, inaccurate online discourse.