In this long running defamation claim Mrs Stocker posted on Facebook of her husband, Mr Stocker, the words “He tried to strangle me”. Mr Stocker claimed that these words meant that he had tried to kill his wife but she claimed instead that they meant only that he had gripped her neck, inhibiting her breathing so as to put her in fear of being killed, and not that he had intended to kill her.
In defamation claims the Court must identify the ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ of the words complained of. This decision about the meaning of the words is vital as it sets the bar for any defences that might apply. In this case Mrs Stocker pleaded the defence of justification, arguing that her lesser meaning was substantially true. The seriousness of the meaning attributed to the words complained of can therefore be crucial to the success of a libel defence, as a lower meaning will be easier to prove. In identifying the natural and ordinary meaning of words a Court must have regard to what an ordinary reader would have understood the words to mean. The ordinary reader is a hypothetical reasonable reader.
In this case the Supreme Court found that the trial judge in the defamation proceedings was wrong to use definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary to provide a guide to the meaning of the words complained of. Instead, consideration should have been given to the context and circumstances in which the Facebook post was made. Lord Kerr acknowledged that the 21st Century brought with it a new class of reader: the ‘social media user’ and that the Court should keep in mind the way in which social media postings and tweets are read by a typical social media user. An online post is not read in the same detail as a newspaper article. By contrast, social media is a “casual medium” and readers of Facebook posts do not subject them to close analysis but merely scroll through them fleetingly. Searching a Facebook post for its theoretical or logically deducible meaning does not realistically take into account what an ordinary reader of the post would have understood the words to mean.
The Supreme Court therefore allowed Mrs Stocker’s appeal, finding that an ordinary reader of the post would have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck.
Commenting on the judgment, head of NetRights, Laura Baglow, said “It is positive to see that the law of defamation is recognising the informal and impressionistic nature of social media use, rather than focusing on unrealistic technical definitions of casual online posts which are divorced from the context in which they are made and are rooted in more traditional forms of communication”.
Details of the Supreme Court judgment can be found here
Laura Baglow is head of NetRights, the Social Media, Internet and Media law department of Parnalls Solicitors. For legal advice and assistance with social media or internet postings please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01566 772375. Find out more about NetRights here