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Libel and social media - Guidance from the Supreme Court

View profile for Laura Meers
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Libel and social media - Guidance from the Supreme Court

In a recent defamation case (Stocker v Stocker [2019] UKSC 17) the Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge had made an error. The judge used dictionary definitions as the starting point for his analysis of the meaning of words on a Facebook post. He failed to take into account the context of the post.

The facts

In 2012, Mrs Stocker published a Facebook post claiming that her former husband, Ronald Stocker, had “tried to strangle” her. Mr Stocker commenced defamation proceedings. 

He claimed that the words posted would be understood to mean that he had tried to kill Mrs Stocker, which he claimed was untrue and defamatory. 

Mrs Stocker defended the claim on the basis that the words would have been understood to mean that Mr Stocker had violently gripped her neck, which was true. The judge had to decide what the reasonable reader would have taken Mrs Stocker’s words to mean.

The first instance judge suggested that the parties refer to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the verb “strangle”. It provided two possible meanings. The judge found that Mr Stocker had succeeded in painfully constricting Mrs Stocker’s neck and thus “tried to strangle” meant that Mr Stocker had tried to kill Mrs Stocker. 

On appeal, the Court of Appeal considered that, although the use of dictionaries did not form part of the process of determining the natural and ordinary meaning of words, no harm had been done. The judge had only used the dictionary definitions as a check. The Supreme Court granted permission for an appeal.

The Appeal

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal and disagreed that the use of a dictionary had been merely as a check. 

On analysis, the phrase “he strangled me” entailed a less serious accusation than the phrase “he tried to strangle me”. That was the consequence of confirming the meaning of the words exclusively to two dictionary definitions of the word “strangle”. In determining a single meaning, the words had to be taken together so as to determine what the ordinary reasonable reader would have understood them to mean. In making its determination, the court had to be particularly conscious of the context in which the statement was made. 

People scroll through Facebook quickly and their reaction to posts are impressionistic and fleeting. The ordinary reader of the Facebook post would, unquestionably, have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck. They would not have thought he had tried to deliberately kill her. In light of that, Mrs Stocker’s defence succeeded.

Commentary

The Supreme Court’s decision implores judges to step aside from a lawyerly analysis and consider the world of a typical reader of a Facebook post. Social media users are a new class of reader who quickly scrolls through media and does not over analyse the words used. 

This case does not mean dictionaries have no place in libel proceedings. The Oxford English Dictionary and specialist dictionaries have a clear role, however, the point to take away from this case is that dictionaries are the wrong starting place. The context in which words, and the surrounding words, are used is vital and that has to be considered.  

At Birkett Long, we have a team of specialist dispute resolution lawyers who can provide expert legal advice. If you would like to discuss this further, please contact us for a free, no obligation 15 minute chat. I am based in our Basildon office and can be contacted on 01268 244142 or laura.meers@birkettlong.co.uk

 

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