Online Defamation Differences Between UK and US Laws

London LibelAuthorities in the United Kingdom are eager to eradicate libel tourism and allow for a greater degree of Internet free speech, while at the same time providing ample opportunity for defamed individuals to have libelous content removed from the Web.

Current Online Defamation Laws In The United Kingdom

While free speech is just as important to Queen Elizabeth’s subjects as it is to U.S. Citizens, the U.K.’s Defamation Act of 1996 does little to uphold the ideal. Section I of the statute does provide a modicum of litigation protection for passive website operators, but the law says that operators can be held libel for any defamatory statements if notice was given and removal was refused. Since most website owners don’t have the legal IQ to determine the validity of a defamation claim, they just remove items at the first whiff of trouble.

Defamation Regulations In The United States

When it comes to defamation, section 230 of the United State’s Federal Communications Decency Act largely absolves website operators and hosting providers from fault. In the U.S., the law does not distinguish between selective and impartial online publishers; in other words, unless a website operator “develops” defamatory content, they don’t need to fear losing a defamation lawsuit on American soil.

Case Study: Shiamili v. The Real Estate Group Of New York

This year, an important online defamation case was heard by the New York Court of Appeals – Shiamili V. The Real Estate Group of New York. Shiamilli, the plaintiff and realty company owner, brought an Internet defamation lawsuit against Real Estate Group of New York principals who administered a publicly accessible blog.

The trouble began when a commenter with the handle “Ardor Realty Sucks” left a comment in a post thread that accused Shiamili of anti-Semitism, bigotry and employee mistreatment. Upon seeing the post, a site administrator (editor), moved the comment to its own thread and added a photo mash-up of Shiamili and Jesus with the caption, “King of the Token Jews.” The promoted post also allegedly bore the assertion “we are so not afraid.”

Shiamili drafted and posted a response on the thread and contacted the website operators asking them to remove what he considered to be defamatory material. The administrators refused Shiamili’s request, and he, in turn, filed an online defamation lawsuit. The defendants then moved to have the lawsuit dismissed, citing Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.

Shiamili V. The Real Estate Group of New York was significant in that it was the first time that the New York Court of Appeals ruled on an Internet defamation claim. Choosing to adhere to the “national consensus,” the presiding judges ruled — in a 4-3 decision — to dismiss the case on the grounds that the administrators of the site did not “develop” the actual content in question, but instead, simply engaged in a bit editing.

There was, however, strong push-back amongst the panel of judges. “A reasonable reader,” the dissenting opinion argued, “viewing the heading and illustration might very well have concluded that the site editor was endorsing the truth of the appended facts.” In other words, several of the judges felt the editor’s promotion of the comment, and subsequent image and caption embellishments, constituted “development of content.”

But in a U.S. court of law, the majority wins; so the case was dismissed. In the United Kingdom, however, Shiamili would have most likely emerged as the victorious party.

The Future Of Libel Tourism

Due to the liberal nature of the United Kingdom’s libel statutes, in the past, many U.S. citizens have turned to UK courts when trying to win an online defamation lawsuit. A burden on the their legal system, however, officials in the European country are pushing to establish laws that dissuade foreigners from clogging up their courts with defamation cases that have little to do with UK subjects.

Need a attorney for an online defamation case? Aaron Kelly is an Internet lawyer well-versed in cyber-libel. He has a tremendous amount of experience dealing with online libel cases in both the United States and abroad.

Important US Defamation Lawsuits: The Late 1960s-1980s

IS Law LibraryThis is the second part in our short series of notable United States defamation lawsuits. Click here for the first installment.

Defamation laws are sure to evolve over the next several decades. The Internet is now a ubiquitous part of our lives and has dramatically altered the way we communicate friends and family, conduct business and get our news. The rise of social media platforms has also complicated what it means to defame another. Is Twitter considered a news outlet that should be held to the same standards as national newspapers? Are all messages on one’s Facebook page count as opinion or are they generally interpreted as fact? These and others are questions currently being explored in courts across the country.

Let’s take a look back at a few monumental defamation lawsuits from the past that have helped shaped libel and slander law up to this point.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Gertz v. Robert Welch made defamation strict liability unconstitutional in the United States. In addition, the Gertz ruling established that states have the right to set defamation laws for private Citizens and also asserted that if a state’s defamation liability standard is lower than actual malice, only actual damages can be awarded.

The year was 1968 and Robert Nuccio, a Chicago Police officer, was convicted of murdering a man. As was their right, in addition to the criminal trial, the victim’s family also filed a civil suit against Nuccio; Elmer Gertz was retained as their lawyer.

Things got complicated when the John Birch Society—a far-right, conspiracy-minded group—published an inflammatory article in their journal, American Opinion, which fingered Gertz as a member of a communist conspiracy to systematically dismantle police agencies in favor of a dictatorial police state. The Society’s article also implicated Gertz as having an extensive criminal record.

The exact details of the case and appeals are dense and exceed the scope of this entry. Suffice it to say that Gertz filed a defamation claim against the John Birch Society (Robert Welch, Inc. is the group’s legal name). There were many trials and appeals and the Supreme Court had the last word.
In a 5-4 majority ruling, the highest court ruled that “under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea…(it) requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters.” Gertz v. Robert Welch is a Supreme Court ruling that expanded what could be disseminated in the press without fear of prosecution.

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

8 Supreme Court Justices—with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself from the case—unanimously ruled in favor of Hustler Magazine publisher, Larry Flynt, in his 80s-era, legal rumble with Reverend Jerry Falwell.

A critic of the outspoken evangelist, Flynt published a cartoon in his adult magazine which implied Rev. Falwell had relations with his own mother in an outhouse. Severely aggrieved, Falwell filed an extensive lawsuit against Flynt which charged libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Virginia district court threw out the libel charges, but agreed to hear arguments on the emotional distress charge. Moved by the prosecution’s case, Falwell was awarded $150,000 in damages. After several appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court.

The Justices reasoned that the First Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteed free-speech and therefore public figures are prohibited from being awarded damages to compensate for “intentionally inflicted emotional distress”. Moreover, they found the cartoon to be satirical in that no “reasonable person” would think the animation to be truthful. Flynt won and did not have to pay Falwell the money.

If you have found yourself in the middle on an Internet defamation lawsuit, we’ve got the team of lawyers that can help. Contact us today to begin the conversation.