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Sticks and stones may break my bones but words....call my lawyer

View profile for Rosalin Gautam
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With the rise of social media, it has become easier to share information and to do so quickly and without much forethought. The phenomena that is social media has made it far easier for individuals to look up reviews of everything, from restaurants and bars to accountants and solicitors. One question that people are still grappling with is: where do you draw a line between a “negative review” and a “defamatory comment”?

Defamation involves the publication of a false written or oral statement that damages a individual’s reputation. This statement can come in many forms, including tweets, status updates, comments or reviews. For a statement to be defamatory, it must be a false statement and not simply opinion, sarcasm or an exaggeration.

This issue came to light recently involving a social media group known as ‘Fallowfield Student Accommodation’, a university student-led online forum where members could find accommodation, housemates and review landlords. The forum also contained a page entitled ‘Landlord Blacklist’, set aside for any landlord receiving consistently bad ratings or complaints.

Whilst the idea behind the online forum was merely to assist students in their search for reasonable accommodation with a respectable landlord, there was an oversight that caused the downfall of the forum: a failure to consider the views of the landlords.

When one landlord threatened a defamation action against the founder of the forum, stating that he had been blocked from the group and was unable to respond to any of the claims made about him, the forum was ultimately forced to close down.

Defamation claims and threats of such claims such as the one involving Fallowfield Student Accommodation are becoming increasingly common. With new technology comes new ways of expressing views and there is still uncertainty as to whether the defamation laws should apply to social media in exactly the same was as they do to more traditional media, such as television or newspapers. The truth of the matter is that it is becoming harder to balance freedom of expression alongside the right to privacy and the right to maintain and protect a reputation. Distinguishing what is ‘honest opinion’ from what is a defamatory statement of fact is something that will keep defamation lawyers busy for many years to come.

In the case of the Fallowfield Student Accommodation forum, it could be argued that having to shut down the whole forum due to the negative reaction of one landlord is unfair, particularly given the fundamentally benign objectives of the forum. Set against that is the fact that one single defamatory comment could cause serious financial consequences for a landlord, trying to earn and maintain a reputation amongst students.

Whatever view one takes in this instance, the golden rule in relation to social media has to be: think before you hit ‘Post’. It is far too easy to assume that the online space is a sort of Wild West free-for-all where one can roam and communicate with impunity. That assumption can get you in a world of trouble and continues to keep lawyers’ phones ringing.   

 

If you have any questions concerning defamation or any issues raised in this blog, please contact Rosalin Gautam or Andrew Turner on 01242 586 841.