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John Simkin

Libel Law in the UK and Online Forums

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In the past few days Sheffield Wednesday dropped its libel case against its fans. It is now possible to report on what has been going on and it has great significance for those concerned about the freedom of expression.

In 1275 Parliament passed a law that made it a criminal offence of “scandalum magnatum”. This was an attempt to protect those in power from stories which could stir the people against them. Over the centuries the powerful used this law to silence the masses. Therefore, in 1792 a Libel Act was passed that attempted to restrict this power to bully individuals. The new law meant that they had to prove that the words used against them were “false, malicious and damaging”.

During the 19th and 20th centuries politicians altered the libel law to one of defamation. This differs from all other civil or criminal laws in Britain: the burden of proof is on the defendant. The law was also changed so that large institutions in the UK were free to sue for defamation. The inequality of this is compounded by the fact that there is no legal aid for defamation cases. Only rich individuals and large institutions can afford to instigate defamation cases that usually cost over a £1m to prosecute. If you lose the case, you do not only have to pay your legal costs but that of the person who has accused you of defamation.

Until the arrival of the internet these cases invariably only concerned wealthy individuals or corporations suing newspapers, book publishers and television stations. As a result of the development of websites such as this forum, the powerful have a new danger to overcome.

In 2005 Owlstalk, a forum for supporters of Sheffield Wednesday, received a demand from the club for the names and email addresses of 14 people who had posted critical comments on the forum. This included comments such as: "What an embarrassing, pathetic, laughing stock of a football club we've become." "Another day, another blunder. I doubt even Leeds were in such a mess this time last summer, and look what happened to them." "I am waiting with bated breath to hear who the Chuckle Brothers have signed after their trip to watch players abroad. With the amount of money they have to spend and the wages they can offer the best we can hope for is that little known Transvestitavian International I Sukblodov, who last scored in a brothel."

http://www.owlstalk.co.uk/forums/

Such comments were deemed by Sheffield Wednesday's lawyers to be "false and seriously defamatory messages" which had caused grievous injury to the people who ran the club. The lawyers threatened "proceedings to include claims for injunctions, damages, interest and legal costs (which could be substantial)".

The case first came to court a year ago. The judge threw most of the application out, but instructed the forum's host to reveal the email addresses of four of the posters. For the past year these four fans faced the possibility of losing their homes and everything else they owned because of the fear of losing this case in court.

Last Friday the club dropped the case against the fans. It suggested that it had done so because one of the defendants, Nigel Short, was suffering from throat cancer. The point of the story is that football clubs will use the law in order to silence the fans. It is hoped that West Ham is not one of these clubs.

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To use a common misquote of Dickens (which fits better than the original), “…if that is the law then the law is an ass.” It’s absurd that anyone could be sued for expressing their opinion, especially over the performance of a sports team especially when these opinions are expressed in forum posts.

Could Larouche, Willis Carto, William Rodriguez etc potentially be able to sue me or this forum for the less than complimentary comments I’ve made about them here? Or more likely a British member of this forum for unkind words about a British company, organization or individual? The prospect of this is completely contrary to free speech.

In the US such a law would be unconstitutional and groups like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), People for the American Way and the the Center for Constitutional Rights would fight against one. Are there any such groups in Britain? What if anything have they done?

The suits by SWFC are especially stupid because not only are they undemocratic but they are counterproductive. I imagine news of them will cause the club to loose fans and will cause remaining fans to become even more dissatisfied with the idiots who run it.

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To use a common misquote of Dickens (which fits better than the original), “…if that is the law then the law is an ass.” It’s absurd that anyone could be sued for expressing their opinion, especially over the performance of a sports team especially when these opinions are expressed in forum posts.

Could Larouche, Willis Carto, William Rodriguez etc potentially be able to sue me or this forum for the less than complimentary comments I’ve made about them here? Or more likely a British member of this forum for unkind words about a British company, organization or individual? The prospect of this is completely contrary to free speech.

In the US such a law would be unconstitutional and groups like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), People for the American Way and the the Center for Constitutional Rights would fight against one. Are there any such groups in Britain? What if anything have they done?

The suits by SWFC are especially stupid because not only are they undemocratic but they are counterproductive. I imagine news of them will cause the club to loose fans and will cause remaining fans to become even more dissatisfied with the idiots who run it.

Yet it was an American, Tim Gratz, who threatened me with legal action when I said he was not telling the truth on the forum. It was also an American, Roger Craig's daughter, who was the last one to threaten me with legal action because I posted her words on the forum about her father (she originally asked me to do this but then changed her mind about it).

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To use a common misquote of Dickens (which fits better than the original), “…if that is the law then the law is an ass.” It’s absurd that anyone could be sued for expressing their opinion, especially over the performance of a sports team especially when these opinions are expressed in forum posts.

Could Larouche, Willis Carto, William Rodriguez etc potentially be able to sue me or this forum for the less than complimentary comments I’ve made about them here? Or more likely a British member of this forum for unkind words about a British company, organization or individual? The prospect of this is completely contrary to free speech.

In the US such a law would be unconstitutional and groups like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), People for the American Way and the the Center for Constitutional Rights would fight against one. Are there any such groups in Britain? What if anything have they done?

The suits by SWFC are especially stupid because not only are they undemocratic but they are counterproductive. I imagine news of them will cause the club to loose fans and will cause remaining fans to become even more dissatisfied with the idiots who run it.

Yet it was an American, Tim Gratz, who threatened me with legal action when I said he was not telling the truth on the forum. It was also an American, Roger Craig's daughter, who was the last one to threaten me with legal action because I posted her words on the forum about her father (she originally asked me to do this but then changed her mind about it).

Welcome to the [not so] Brave New World!

There are always a certain amount of inequities in the West regarding various cultural and socio-economic spheres, there are indications that Great Britain and the United States both have structures of iniquity, that, in the situation described above, defy traditional concepts of jurisprudence.....In the United States there may not be such stringent legalities regarding critical comments directed towards sports franchises, but to cite an example.....The use of trial by jury, has through the years been lessened numerically, due to the fact that in some areas of the United States, it is alleged that it is difficult to produce an adequate amount of jurors in lower populated areas.....The idea of a verdict being "given" by a judge, without the benefit of a jury of ones peers, presents a haunting spectre of potential abuse of a democratic process, more akin to the legal "system" of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.....Not exactly a comforting thought for at least one American.......

For Further reading

See google books

American Law in the Twentieth Century By Lawrence Meir Friedman

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There have already been some important libel cases on the JFK assassination.

Mark Lane's Plausible Denial is mainly about his involvement in the Hunt v. Liberty Lobby (Spotlight?) libel case.

I think David Atlee Phillips even testified in the course of that case.

Then there was the La Costa Country Club v. Penthouse and a few others with bearings on the assassination case.

If the goal is to get new witness testimony under oath, then a libel case would do very nicely.

Will somebody please sue me?

BK

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To use a common misquote of Dickens (which fits better than the original), “…if that is the law then the law is an ass.” It’s absurd that anyone could be sued for expressing their opinion, especially over the performance of a sports team especially when these opinions are expressed in forum posts.

Could Larouche, Willis Carto, William Rodriguez etc potentially be able to sue me or this forum for the less than complimentary comments I’ve made about them here? Or more likely a British member of this forum for unkind words about a British company, organization or individual? The prospect of this is completely contrary to free speech.

In the US such a law would be unconstitutional and groups like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), People for the American Way and the the Center for Constitutional Rights would fight against one. Are there any such groups in Britain? What if anything have they done?

The suits by SWFC are especially stupid because not only are they undemocratic but they are counterproductive. I imagine news of them will cause the club to loose fans and will cause remaining fans to become even more dissatisfied with the idiots who run it.

Yet it was an American, Tim Gratz, who threatened me with legal action when I said he was not telling the truth on the forum. It was also an American, Roger Craig's daughter, who was the last one to threaten me with legal action because I posted her words on the forum about her father (she originally asked me to do this but then changed her mind about it).

You are conflating the likeliness of people to sue you over a matter of opinion with the likelihood of them prevailing. They could have tried to sue you but I doubt the suits would have gotten very far. I also seriously doubt a US judge would have obliged a US based forum to disclose the identity of anonymous members in a similar case. A cousin of late Rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins threatened to sue me over an article* I wrote about my stay with her uncle but a lawyer told me she would loose (but then again I have other relatives on video telling me what she disputed was true).

PS – I though Gratz wanted to sue the forum because a member claimed or insinuated he was involved in the plot to kill Wallace.

* http://www.roctober.com/roctober/hasiladkins.html

PS Bill Kelly - Hey if there is money in it I'll be glad to sue you! :rolleyes:

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