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Court Considers Defamatory Comments Posted on a Fanzine

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The Directors and Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (‘Sheffield Wednesday’) recently sought pre action disclosure from the owner of a website www.owlstalk.co.uk, Neil Hargreaves, on which it alleged 11 users had posted defamatory comments about the club. Disclosure was required on the basis that the comments were posted under anonymous pseudonyms.

Sheffield Wednesday claimed that by allowing what they called a “sustained campaign of vilification” by some users, Mr Hargreaves had “facilitated and become mixed up in the wrongdoing of these users.”

In making his decision the Judge considered the following:

That given the use of anonymous pseudonyms, users of the website would expect that their privacy would be respected. He stated that “the court must be careful not to make an order which unjustifiably invades the right of an individual to respect for his private life, especially when that individual is in the nature of things not before the court.” He also stated that the court should first consider “whether the disclosure is warranted having regard to the rights and freedoms or the legitimate interests of the data subject under the Data Protection Act.

Some of the comments posted although arguably defamatory, bordered on the trivial so as to be ‘barely defamatory’, ‘little more than abusive’ or ‘likely to be understood as jokes’. Consequently he stated that to order the disclosure of the identity of the users who posted these comments would be “disproportionate and unjustifiably intrusive.”

In respect of the other postings listed in the action he viewed these as being more serious on the basis that they “may reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour on the part of the Claimants. In the case of those postings, the Claimants' entitlement to take action to protect their right to reputation outweighs, in my judgment, the right of the authors to maintain their anonymity and their right to express themselves freely”. In this respect he took into account the fact that the terms of use for the website restricted the use of defamatory language. In addition he also cited the fact that the website did not have any particular confidentiality policy.

The Judge therefore granted the order but only in respect of the users who he deemed had posted the more serious comments; this being 4 users out of the claimed 11.

Christina King is a trainee solicitor who specialises in intellectual property law, in particular trade marks, copyright and designs.


About the Author

Lawdit Solicitors offer services and advice for litigation, commercial contracts, Intellectual Property and IT legal agreements. We are experts in commercial law with a heavy emphasis on Intellectual Property, Internet and e-commerce law. Lawdit is a member of the International Trademark Association, the Solicitors' Association of Higher Court Advocates and we are the appointed Solicitors to the largest webdesign association in the world, the United Kingdom Website Designers Association.



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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-10-23 11:49:28 in Legal Articles

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