UK Court: Guy Who Didn't Write Defamatory Tweet Needs To Pay $50,000 In Damages Because The Guy Who Did Doesn't Have Any Money

from the WTF-UK dept

We’re all pretty familiar with the United State’s take on defamation. Except for the noticeable lack of a federal anti-SLAPP law, the system works pretty well. Those claiming they’ve been defamed need to meet some rather high bars to win a case, which is how it should be in a country that has enshrined free speech protections. Without these high bars, it’s whoever has the most money or the biggest lawyer, rather than the facts of the case. It’s not perfect, but dear lord it is so much better than how it’s handled by our former overlords.

Defamation lawsuits are good business in the UK. The law encourages venue shopping, giving mildly-insulted plaintiffs a route to securing a payout for slightly-bruised feelings. It’s a mess and it just keeps getting worse. A recent decision [PDF] by a UK court in a libel lawsuit has delivered some jaw-dropping judicial reasoning.

A tweet from a group account used by members of the Ukip party apparently defamed a man by mislabeling him a compatriot of “child groomers.” The tweet was composed by one member of the Bristol Ukip. The lawsuit, however, was allowed to be amended to hold someone else completely responsible for this tweet. The end result is one person paying for another person’s alleged libel.

A former chairman of a UK Independence Party branch has been ordered to pay £40,000 in damages to a man defamed on Twitter even though he did not write the offending tweet.

Ruling in Zahir Monir v Steve Wood, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin accepted that Steve Wood had not written or approved the tweet, made from the UKIP branch account and picturing a Labour election candidate alongside two men described as ‘child grooming taxi drivers’. However he held that the tweet’s author, John Langley, was ‘quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood’.

The court ruled that the tweet spread far beyond the account’s 547 followers. It came to this conclusion despite there being plenty of evidence the tweet was quickly debunked by those who saw it. Zahir Monir called the police after being rebuffed by former Ukip chairman Steve Wood, who refused to take down the tweet or apologize for its content.

Steve Wood made a good argument: he did not compose the tweet nor control the actions of other users of the Bristol Ukip account. The court decided none of these facts mattered since the person who actually tweeted the libel was too broke to pay damages. I am not making this up.

In particular Wood argued that Langley, originally named on the claim form, should be held responsible. The proceedings were served on Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Langley, a self-styled ‘maverick’ who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name ‘Johnny Rockard’.

This runs completely contrary to the American way, which shifts the burden to the person actually doing the dirty, rather than the richest person remotely connected to the offender. This liability shift would be ridiculous enough on its own, but the court’s stated reason for doing so sends the signal that it’s willing to ensure the wronged get paid, even if the person they’re suing is judgment-proof. That’s not how the system is supposed to work, but that’s apparently how it does work in the UK.

Rulings like this will only encourage plaintiffs to file super-sketchy lawsuits and roll the dice on the UK’s terrible, zero-speech-protection laws handing them an unearned win. And with the specter of “fake news” omnipresent, litigation is only going to increase, bringing with it new levels of absurdity as the UK courts apply the country’s laws to a variety of heated, inaccurate online discourse.

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Comments on “UK Court: Guy Who Didn't Write Defamatory Tweet Needs To Pay $50,000 In Damages Because The Guy Who Did Doesn't Have Any Money”

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64 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

1) Find a rude homeless/poor person, or one that you want to claim was rude, near a prosperous business.

2) Sue said homeless/poor person for your terribly hurt feelings.

3) Find a judge monumentally stupid enough to buy the argument that since the homeless/poor person can’t afford to salve your hurt feelings with enough money the owner of the property should be forced to pay instead, since clearly they could have chased the individual off and chose not to, making them responsible for said homeless/poor person’s actions.

4) Profit!

The judge involved needs to be pulled from the bench and placed into medical care/psychiatric evaluation, since I can only assume they’ve been opening doors and/or going down stairs literally head first on a regular basis in order to issue a ruling so mind-numbingly moronic.

Dave W (profile) says:

Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

Hi there – I know this is written tongue in cheek but I need to clarify why your example would not work in the UK.

The law being used here is relates to agency, as defined in UK law. Specifically, where you are an employee, volunteer or member of a group you are (almost) automatically considered as acting on behalf of the company, political party, club or society. Posting to a group social media account is a prime example. The chairman of said group is ultimately responsible under law for the actions of that group – though there are defences which could have been used here:

– having a social media policy that is evidenced as being delivered to members and having breaches enforced when occurring.
– if unwitting about the original tweet reacting in a positive manner on discovery.

He certainly did not do the latter (as we can see he basically ignored the initial complaint) and the former is the kind of internal risk management which is anaethema to UKIP almost to point of policy.

What the law is enforcing here is that senior members of any company or group cannot suddenly absolve themselves from actions of junior members but need to evidence that the junior member did so against group policy, and that when made aware of the transgression they reacted swiftly.

In your example, a property owner would not be responsible for the alleged actions of a tramp on social media because the tramp does not have agency for the property owner.

Finally – I agree with you it is dumb as hell but this would come under our racial incitement laws, which further limit freedom of speech, rightfully or wrongfully is a whole other disucssion.

Sorry – I felt an urge to be legally pedantic.

Jono793 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

If that employee posts “something bad about you” it from McDonald’s Official social media accounts? Yes, clearly!

In this context “something bad” read as “factually alleges that you’re a paedophile, and a member of an organized child grooming gang”

Which is *clearly Defamatory under either US, or E&W standards!

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 How to get rich quick in the UK in four

Actually, having faced claims of defamation in the UK (by the UK intellectual property office, in a consultation response – there is a story here about it) I’ve had to look into the topic deeply.

Even under the pre-reform statutes for defamation, truth is still an absolute defense. By definition, if it’s true, it’s not defamatory.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

It was mostly sarcasm/snark, yes.

While I can understand what you noted(even as I still find it absurd), the problem is that assuming the excerpt is accurate and I’m reading it correctly they didn’t hit Wood with the penalty originally, but only once it because clear that going after the actual perpetrator wasn’t going to shake enough money free for the one suing.

In particular Wood argued that Langley, originally named on the claim form, should be held responsible. The proceedings were served on Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Langley, a self-styled ‘maverick’ who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name ‘Johnny Rockard’.

That strikes me as less ‘He’s on your payroll, and therefore your problem’ and more ‘We can’t get as much money as we want from the guilty party, so let’s go after his boss instead.’ Whether the accused had ‘enough’ money should have had no impact on the proceedings(beyond perhaps limiting damages to what could realistically be paid. No use demanding one million from a person who can only afford one thousand for example), such that if they were going to go after the boss for what his employee did that should have been in there from the start or not at all.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

I think it’s the wording that has people thinking this is something new.

Works the same way in the US – the lawyers look for the deepest pockets. The only real difference is that they generally name every party in the chain of liability, no matter how remote, in the initial filing.

Do you know WHY companies have mandatory sexual harassment (and the like) classes?

It’s not to protect the employees. It’s to protect the company from being named in suits. If an employee is sued they can point to the class(es) and claim they’ve done everything possible to prevent it.

If you can prove in court that anyone annoying you was acting in ANY kind of an official capacity, you can sue whatever body granted them that capacity – be it a company twitter account, a delivery truck, or a mouthy cashier.

Dave W (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

A good point – the judge has followed the money. what i find more interesting is that the party itself – which has some very wealthy donors (Google Arron Banks; though i think he is now an ex-donor) isn’t being pulled up for the actions.

It does seem to me (and i think an AC has commented below) that the judge realises the local party (different to the national party) is actually the one who should be held responsible and has pinged the chairman accordingly.

SpanglePants the Mildly Magnificent says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy ste

I don’t see how the Judge has any say in the matter. The judge didn’t take Langley (who is a prick) off the case, the Claimant did. The only defendant at the conclusion of the trial was Wood, so he’s the one fined.

Wood, arguably, is free to sue Langley for breach of contract or something along those lines, but that’s not the original claimant’s problem.

SpanglePants the Mildly Magnificent says:

Re: Re: Re: How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy steps:

I have to say that I disagree with your reading of the case.

Langley and Wood were both liable – Langley for writing the tweet and Wood for being the responsible owner of the account and for refusing to act when the tweet was identified.

Since Langley would not be able to pay damages, there would be little point spending money suing him.

Since Wood was equally liable, he was sued.

Under your argument, if you choose not to sue one person who is liable you can’t sue the other. That’s the same as when people caught speeding argue that everyone else was doing it – that may be the case, but it doesn’t absolve liability.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy ste

Since Langley would not be able to pay damages, there would be little point spending money suing him.

Other than, you know, the fact that he was the one who actually posted the offending tweet? While I’m quite aware that there are more than a few parties that see the legal system as a ‘get rich quick’ one(‘Just add lawsuit/threat of lawsuit!’) the fact that he couldn’t afford to pay damages should not have been grounds to shift it to someone else.

Since Wood was equally liable, he was sued.

If he was equally liable then he should have been party from the start, not only once it because clear that Langly didn’t have the cash to pay out, and unless whoever wrote the excerpt botched it, or I’m seriously misreading it, that was not the case.

The proceedings were served on Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Langley, a self-styled ‘maverick’ who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name ‘Johnny Rockard’.

Under your argument, if you choose not to sue one person who is liable you can’t sue the other. That’s the same as when people caught speeding argue that everyone else was doing it – that may be the case, but it doesn’t absolve liability.

Uh, no, as I noted above if you/the judge/the one filing the lawsuit want to argue that the boss is just as liable as the employee then have them party from the start or not at all. Adding them in after it becomes clear that the primary offender can’t pay up just makes it clear that the goal is money more than punishing the accused for what they did.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy

…want to argue that the boss is just as liable as the employee…

In the UK company directors (or whichever entity "owns" any given account or resource) typically bear 100% of the responsibility for that account. Responsibility can be delegated via instruments such as internal code-of-use guides, or whether on-line activity is routinely monitored or policed… but it’s nuanced. Wood would need to demonstrate that Langley was fully aware of, or had been trained in UKIP’s policies, and that UKIP had a "hands-off" approach to on-line activity.

That said, however, your points about timeliness stands; Wood should have been held to account from the get-go.

SpanglePants the Mildly Magnificent says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How to get rich quick in the UK in four easy

Wood was added to the claim after it became apparent that he was also liable. To continue to sue Langley when it became clear that he would not be able to resolve the matters disputed – he could not pay, could not apologise on behalf of UKIP Bristol, and could not remove the tweet – would have been redundant. Since there was a party of clear equal responsibility, the liability passes to them. Woods could not be added if there was not clear liability on his part.

Your argument only stands up if you think that Woods was not liable. He clearly was – read the court documents. He’s liable because he refused take action to remove a tweet from his own account that represented him that was posted by someone who was acting as his representative.

Cal Culator says:

Re: Re: Today's Zombie: Dave W or Dave or David W!

31 comments (bit less than 3 per year!), SPARSE: 1 in 2018; 2 in 2017; 2 year, 1 year, and 2 year gaps; and begun 12 Apr 2007!

I admit “Dave” has long and apparently real comments, but c’mon: engaged but so few in ELEVEN years? That’s just ODD. — And soon as anyone admits these are ODD, it’s overwhelming. But ignoring doesn’t work either, just keeps gnawing at you.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Normally, I would let this lunacy go unchallenged and flagged, but I do want to bring up a specific commenter who could be accused of “zombie-ism”.

Me.

I have a gap in my account’s commenting history that spans from the 29th of January 2008 to the 3rd of November 2014. While I did comment on Techdirt during that gap (I used a variant of my name and failed to attach an email address for later “claiming” of the comments under my account), the gap still stands. The vast majority of my comments here were made after I got back into my account in 2014.

Does my account qualify to be a “zombie” account because I failed to properly comment in a nearly seven-year span/properly claim comments from that span under my account? Do I seem dead to you?

Also:

engaged but so few in ELEVEN years? That’s just ODD. — And soon as anyone admits these are ODD, it’s overwhelming.

It is “odd” only in that anyone keeping this close track of commenter histories to play “gotcha” has a legitimate mental health issue. These so-called “zombies” may have forgotten passwords or not felt the same compulsory obligation as you to comment as often as possible even when (like you) they have nothing substantive to say. If you really think these are sockpuppets, prove it with something other than “they don’t have thousands of comments spread out over several months or years”. I had maybe a couple hundred comments at best before my account went dormant; unlike you, people generally have better things to do with their lives beyond this blog.

David says:

Look, he was chairman

This runs completely contrary to the American way, which shifts the burden to the person actually doing the dirty, rather than the richest person remotely connected to the offender.

The American way is that chairmen receive easily thousand times the salary of a factory worker because of all the responsibility they bear, being in theory legally accountable for criminal company endeavors. In practice, it is almost unheard of that any of them actually is held accountable (Dieselgate was quite remarkable in respect of actually resulting in high profile jail terms for a change).

Was this done on UKIP resources under UKIP responsibility? Then the chairman of UKIP cannot just say "tough luck getting reimbursed for that if I did not personally do it".

In the U.S., this would have been protected speech. In the UK it isn’t. That may feel wrong to you and provides a headstart for being offended.

But the principal thing you are complaining about is making a chairman of an organisation legally responsible for acts committed on behalf of the organisation, in this case using the Bristol UKIP Tweet account in an authorised manner (we are not talking about a break-in here).

Maybe he’ll think twice before providing the UKIP signature to rogues in future. And it’s not like providing a legal excuse framework for otherwise illegal endeavors is so far remote from the UKIP’s operating principles that excusing one such "accident" is likely to make them change operations in order to avoid a reoccurence. Unless it hurts.

And the UK has a "loser pays" legal system. Having to defend yourself in court does not hurt at all as long as you are successful.

So as long as the legal system declares this kind of utterance to be outside of legality, I don’t see how the courts have much of an option ignoring the escalation of legal responsibility along the authorisation chain here. They’d be without recourse then.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Look, he was chairman

Got to agree with you there, David. Looking at the ruling, this seems to be misreporting, verging on outright propaganda.

This isn’t a use of the UK’s terrible “I’m offended therefore what you said was illegal” laws, this was libel. The agent and representative of a political party in the UK broke the libel law, and UKIP tried to weasel out from that clear chain of responsibility by claiming that everyone involved was a collaborating volunteer and that the man running the local branch of the party had no control over or duties with regards to responsibility for other party representatives.

This is obviously complete bollocks, and it’s right that UKIP should be held to account for the actions of its members who are acting as representatives of the party.

This isn’t even a good SLAPP story because, as you point out, the loser already pays costs in frivolous libel suits in the UK.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Look, he was chairman

But the principal thing you are complaining about is making a chairman of an organisation legally responsible for acts committed on behalf of the organisation

I would just like to clarify here, that while Wood was Chairman of the organization, Langley was Vice Chairman. Attempting to imply some kind of large difference in responsibility for organizational endeavors is disingenuous.

SteveMB (profile) says:

However he held that the tweet’s author, John Langley, was ‘quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood’.

This is the key point. If the finding of agency status is correct — and it appears to be at least plausible given the facts given in the article — then the boss is indeed responsible for the doings of the underlings when said underlings are acting as agents of his organization.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think the more important part is this:

Zahir Monir called the police after being rebuffed by former Ukip chairman Steve Wood, who refused to take down the tweet or apologize for its content.

Wood had the ability to take down the tweet and remedy the libel, but chose not to, therefore he tacitly endorsed it. That’s why I’m okay with this ruling (though Langley should also become indebted as well for his part).

DoctorMckay (profile) says:

Doorway for new scams¿?

I mean, couldn’t you scam a company on this basis?

1- Get a “friend” employed by a company
2- Make it so he/she becames the social media manager
3- Have him/her insult you through the corporate account
4- Sue him/her for an absurd amount
5- Have your friend declare themselves bankrupt
6- Make the company pay
7- Profit

Does this work?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Doorway for new scams¿?

Absolutely! You just need that:

1. the court doesn’t identify the relationship between you as claimant and your “friend”; and

2. the company that your friend works for is full of idiots who don’t monitor their official communications streams

Now, a local branch of UKIP seems to well fulfill category 2. So, the question becomes:

What relationship exists between the claimant and Langley?

SpanglePants the Mildly Magnificent says:

Re: Doorway for new scams¿?

Only if the company refuses to take down the libellous tweets.

And they have to be libellous, which isn’t the same as offensive. So they need to claim something that is actually damaging to you.

And you don’t get to sue for a specific amount – you have to justify your apparent losses due to the claim, so you will have to have actually lost something such as reputation or employment opportunities.

SpanglePants the Mildly Magnificent says:

Re: Re: Re: Doorway for new scams¿?

Yes, it is.

UK libel is currently defined by the Defamation Act 2013. It defines defamation by saying that statement is defamatory if its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant, and is untrue (or, if it’s an opinion, is not an opinion an honest person would make).

Hugo Connery (profile) says:

In which the comments section explores the nuance of the case

Given that Langley was handling the official twitter handle of a branch office of a political party, and that the party’s rules stipulate that the local party’s chairman must authorize all public statements via channels that use the party logo, then it makes complete sense that the chairman (Wood) is responsible.

So, the outrageous thing is not that Wood is responsible for Langley’s tweet, but that the motivation for shifting the blame is financial.

But, event that is not so outrageous, because the whole point of defamation law is to provide for restitution for damages. If you’d been falsely labelled a paedophile or someone grooming children for paedophiles you would want some compensation.

The error here was Wood’s. He did not treat seriously enough the responsibility of his role as the local party chairman. In the 86 page highly detailed judgement, it seems clear that Wood was doing his best to keep a "clean shop" (no racism, homophobia etc.) but all it takes is one person with less scruples being handed the reigns of an official communications channel and it all comes back to haunt you.

The thing that irks me is that the defaming party looks to escape all punishment. That is the outrageous part.

Cal Culator says:

Re: this is plainly incorrect

You’re NEW here, "peppermint". You commented while I was composing mine.

I’ll inform that I’m the most reviled / ad hommed / banned / censored commenter here, so don’t reply, will tarnish you forever. But you won’t last long, anyway… if take the site seriously: it’s FUN if know is mostly sham.

Anyhoo, yes, the sole relevant point is "agent" or not. That’s been determined, so all else follows. — Don’t expect to be thanked for informing them, though! Techdirt doesn’t actually know or care about the law, no matter how obvious, only about venting, usually attacking copyright / DMCA / conservatives.

peppermint (profile) says:

Re: Re: this is plainly incorrect

“This runs completely contrary to the American way, which shifts the burden to the person actually doing the dirty, rather than the richest person remotely connected to the offender.” — my comment referenced this part. also, we do in fact have joint and several liability, which allows a plaintiff to pursue payment from all/any of the tortfeasors.

Cal Culator says:

Do all of you not understand the term "agent"?

the tweet’s author, John Langley, was ‘quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood’.

If so, then the UK term is "simples". No need for discussion. Employees / agents can get corporations into massive trouble. And certainly should more often, but the law has been corporatized exactly for profits with at most "limited liability", and cut-outs of supposedly "independent contractors" (which in the case of Uber have most places now been ruled "employees").

Anonymous Coward says:

‘The law encourages venue shopping, giving mildly-insulted plaintiffs a route to securing a payout’

just the same as what happens here in the USA. Texas is the ‘go to’ state for copyright prosecutors, so they can get a win, regardless of whether the accused is guilty or not. what does that tell you about Texas ‘justice’ and those sitting on the bench dishing out the verdicts, then? not much justice but plenty of bought verdicts, it seems!!

Vic B (profile) says:

I find the UK system’s logic quite relevant and instead question the US’s archaic free speech protection which is tearing our country apart because any sniffling idiot with a grudge can insult anyone for any reason with impunity. The threshold of online free speech should be the same as in your face free speech: your freedom to insult me is linked to the distance of my fist to your face.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

the US’s archaic free speech protection which is tearing our country apart because any sniffling idiot with a grudge can insult anyone for any reason with impunity.

There’s a significant difference between libel and insults. This involves libel. In America, we’d all be fucked if we couldn’t tell people we don’t like to go fuck themselves. So your comparison is inherently flawed. Or, in American: "your ideas can go fuck themselves."

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Joint and several

This runs completely contrary to the American way, which shifts the burden to the person actually doing the dirty, rather than the richest person remotely connected to the offender.

Really? Apparently you’ve never heard of joint and several, a legal term that means (for example) that if Alice is hurt when the wheel chair she is riding in is negligently pushed in front of a car by Joe, Joe and the wheelchair ymanufacturer can be sued, and the deep-pockets wheelchair manufacturer has to pay for Joe’s neglect.

That’s like the jet fuel of USA litigation. Maybe it doesn’t apply to libel, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Irving V. Lipstadt says:

David Irving v Penguine Books, Deborah Lipstadt

This reminds me of the early days of the Israelification of our communications channels, when a historian named David Irving was slandered and defamed by what Professor Norman Finklestein calls “The Holocaust Industry”and its attendant racist and supremacist spokespersons, like Bnai Brith, and the Anti Defamation League.

https://www.revisionisthistory.org/libeltrial9.html

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