UK Court Rules 7-Word Tweet Libeled Lord

Gavel coming down on twitter bird, combined with British flagLord Robert Alistair McAlpine was libeled by a tweet from Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, according to a May 24, 2013 decision of UK’s High Court of Justice.

With a question of damages still pending, the parties terminated the litigation with a settlement on undisclosed terms.

Eric P. Robinson blogged that the case “shows — if anyone still had doubts — that tweets can indeed be libelous.”

“In short — appropriate for Twitter — a libel is a libel, no matter how few characters it contains,” Robinson concluded.

A BBC report in 2012 about alleged sexual abuse in a Welsh foster-care home in the 1970s and 80s communicated an allegation by a victim that one of the abusers was a leading Tory politician, but no particular person was named. Social media speculation following the BBC report then centered around Lord McAlpine.

Then came the libelous tweet from Bercow:

Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*

It turns out Lord McAlpine was not an abuser. The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of the head of the BBC.

It appears Sally Bercow abandoned Twitter.

The case is a good example of how defamation can happen indirectly, and by implication. It also provides a good point of contrast with American law – UK law on libel is much stricter and not subject to the strong protections that we have under the First Amendment on this side of the Pond.

For a full unpacking of the facts and law, read Robinson’s thorough post on Blog Law Online.

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