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Watch what you Tweet

Users of the social networking site Twitter should be careful about what they ‘tweet’ or ‘retweet’.  The site owners have recently been forced to hand over the personal details of an account holder to a UK council to enable the council to bring action against the user for libel.

The councillor allegedly posted libelous comments about the council under an anonymous Twitter account.

In law, a person is defamed if statements in a publication expose him to hatred or ridicule, cause him to be shunned, lower him in the estimation in the minds of “right-thinking” members of society or disparage him in his work. Juries are told that the measuring stick of a libel being committed is whether any of this would affect how a “reasonable man” views the complainant.

There are defences in law for libel. The publisher could prove the statement to be true, it could be fair comment – so long as the opinion is based on true facts, is genuinely held and not influenced by malice.

The release of the personal information has caused controversy as being contrary to principles of freedom of speech and data protection.  Some commentators are also concerned that it will provoke a flood of similar demands for the personal details of users accused of libel or breach of injunctions.  The site is permitted to disclose such information in accordance with its terms and conditions when required to do so by law.

The case may affect the outcome of a recent application for the personal details of Twitter users who posted private information about ‘the’ footballer, which breached the terms of a super injunction forbidding the information from being made public.  This application has not yet been resolved.

Users of social networking sites should be careful that what they post is not libelous or otherwise against the law, for example by containing racist or offensive remarks.

Employers should also carefully monitor their employees’ use of such sites and if necessary, ban them during working hours so that they are not made vicariously liable for their employee’s comments.

kenneth elliott + rowe solicitors


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