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First Brit Prosecuted Over Twitter Libel 116

Posted by samzenpus
from the tweet-nice dept.
Tasha26 writes "A former town Mayor, Colin Elsbury, made legal history by being the first Brit to pay damages for libel on Twitter. His tweet on polling day said 'It's not in our nature to deride our opponents however Eddie Talbot had to be removed by the Police from a polling station' [and was held to amount] to pure election slur. The Twitter libel was settled at Cardiff High Court with total bill hitting £53,000 (£3,000 compensation + £50,000 legal fees). The fine works out at more than £2,400 per word. After Courtney Love's recent £260k settlement in a Twibel case, this case reaffirms that anything posted in the public domain is subject to libel laws."
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First Brit Prosecuted Over Twitter Libel

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  • Twibel? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Twibel? Seriously, you're coining a portmanteau out of one shared letter (i)? Fuck off.

  • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Sunday March 13, 2011 @02:10PM (#35472900) Homepage
    For all that's wrong with Britain's libel system, this actually sounds like it'd pass muster in America as well, and a good thing for it, too.
    • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Sunday March 13, 2011 @02:18PM (#35472964)

      Yeah, I'm not seeing the problem here. I mean, what was the alternative?

      "You lied about someone in an attempt to smear their reputation? Yep, that's libel all right.
      Oh, but you did it on Twitter? Ah, that's totally different! No harm done then!"

      • by Shikaku (1129753)

        %s/Twitter/the Internet/g

      • by TimSSG (1068536)

        The way the article is written implies someone with the same name was removed by the police; in the USA, I am not sure it would be Libel. It might be it might not.

        Tim S.

        • by julesh (229690)

          The way the article is written implies someone with the same name was removed by the police; in the USA, I am not sure it would be Libel. It might be it might not.

          Interestingly, this was actually less likely to be considered libel in the UK than in the USA. The UK defamation law recognises a defense against libel, "unintentional defamation", which is allowed in cases of genuine mistake about the information disclosed (mistaken identity is the most commonly cited situation it is used in). This defence doe

        • The twitter post identified the person removed by the police as a political opponent so the only mistake was made by the poster, not the reader of the post.

      • The only problem that I see with this case is that it cost 50 thousand pounds: While there is no particular evidence that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice(3k for politically-motivated smear on election day seems fairly lenient), the cost of the case is worrisome.

        At roughly current exchange rates($1.61 per pound) the court costs were just over $80,000. Our spook buddies at the CIA world factbook put the estimated 2010 GDP per capita in the UK at a hair over $35,000.

        So, at least going by this ca
        • IANAL. But I believe if a court case happens and you lose you pay costs. Does this also happen in the USA? How much do your lawyers cost? About the same for a court case, more, less?

          We actually have a system called Legal Aid which supports people on lower incomes, allows them reduced price / free legal support but the present government in all its wisdom is cutting this down to be virtually non existent. Allegedly. (covers me against being sued, right? :-) )

          • by vertinox (846076)

            Does this also happen in the USA?

            No. Which is why rich persons or corporations have been known to force people to settle out of court because they know they couldn't afford a protracted legal battle even if they won the case.

          • Legal aid does not cover libel. The income level at which it cuts off is quite low as well.

            Given how much an open and shut libel case like this cost, its obvious that funding the typical libel case is well beyond the reach of most people.

    • by sjames (1099)

      It's hard to say since they won't have explored the possability that a reasonable person might have believed the tweet to be true based on a genuine mis-identification.

      In the U.S. the plaintiff would have to show that.

    • by Wrath0fb0b (302444) on Sunday March 13, 2011 @04:32PM (#35474044)

      For all that's wrong with Britain's libel system, this actually sounds like it'd pass muster in America as well, and a good thing for it, too.

      With regards to a private citizen, it might pass muster. With regards to a candidate for electoral office and other public officials, however, the 1A requires a much higher standard. See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Times_Co._v._Sullivan [wikipedia.org] for more details.

      Broadly speaking, the standard for talking about a public figure is not merely malice but actual malice which means either actual knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. In practice, that's a nearly impossible burden for a libel plaintiff.

      The logic that a different standard applies to public officials and candidates for office is also pretty obvious -- they have voluntarily decided to submit themselves for public judgment and they ought to understand that they are open to criticism in that regard. The KS Supreme Court wrote it best

      It is of the utmost consequence that the people should discuss the character and qualifications of candidates for their suffrages. The importance to the state and to society of such discussions is so vast, and the advantages derived are so great, that they more than counterbalance the inconvenience of private persons whose conduct may be involved, and occasional injury to the reputations of individuals must yield to the public welfare, although at times such injury may be great. The public benefit from publicity is so great, and the chance of injury to private character so small, that such discussion must be privileged.

  • 3K actual compensation for the libel, 50K to the bottom feeding lawyers... And we think we have it bad here in America...
    • by nomadic (141991)
      I'm curious, how much do you think a lawyer should be able to legitimately charge per hour? You can put it in dollars or pounds if you choose to answer...
      • I don't think it's the per hour charge, but the hours billed that's excessive in most cases. For what seems like a relatively simple libel case, 50k GBP at even 200/hr would be 250 hours of work. At 40 hours/week, that's 6 solid weeks of work. Since most lawyers take on more than one case at a time, you can stretch that out to 3 months easily just by working on two cases. That seems like a fairly extreme amount of time for what boils down to a case where the lawyer's research takes 5 minutes to get the twee

        • and then let's be generous and say 40 hours to get precedents

          Why the hell should should a lawyer earn 10000 pounds just for *1 week* of simple research [90% of which is probably done by a secretary anyway]? That's a freakin' year's salary for some people!

        • by nomadic (141991)
          Interesting, as a lawyer I believe the opposite; I think lawyers tend to charge too much per hour, but the number of hours billed is oftentimes really what needs to be put into the case. Not that there isn't padding (and young associates especially are basically put in a position where they frequently are implicitly encouraged to pad), but the adversarial nature of Anglo-American law means that in a lot of situations putting in those extra 10 or 20 hours of research on a motion might mean the difference be
      • by dargaud (518470)
        No more than half what the case may bring ? That would cut short a lot of frivolous suits. I mean it doesn't make sense that the guys who 'handle the paperwork' get more money than what the whole thing is about.
      • by jmcvetta (153563)

        I would argue that any legal system where access to the law must be purchased is inherently broken.

    • by N1AK (864906) on Sunday March 13, 2011 @02:46PM (#35473180) Homepage

      3K actual compensation for the libel, 50K to the bottom feeding lawyers..

      In the UK it is normal to have to pay the fees for the other party, especially in a case like this. This means that it's quite likely that if he had accepted he was guilty, instead of fighting a lengthy legal battle to try and weasel out of it, he would be paying very little in lawyer's fees.

    • by Sir_Sri (199544)

      That legal cost might be because it was precedent setting, and because it involved an election and politicians who, naturally, are in touch with a lot of lawyers.

      The damages amount might have something to do with the fact that the defendant claimed this was mistaken identity, as someone was actually removed from the polling station in question, just not the person he implicated. He admitted pretty much everything and agreed to the situation.

      I wouldn't be surprised if in future you could see the legal costs

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Oh and it isn't clear from any of the articles I read, but it looks like the tweet didn't materially change the outcome of the election.

        So that makes it OK?

    • by gowen (141411)

      Objection your honour: assumes a fact not in evidence. My client would like it stated that the £50,000 cost for legal fees is press conjecture, unsupported by citations.

  • The math (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 13, 2011 @02:36PM (#35473098)

    Here's a fine attempt to make a reasonable prosecution sound unreasonable:
    "The fine works out at more than £2,400 per word."

    Yes, but those words were put together in such an order that the statement was libellous. So that's £53,000 for each instance of libel/defamation. So what's the problem? You can't slander people (particularly your political opponents) and hope to get off scot-free

    • And, it's not really 2,400 GBP per word. The lawyers' fee was 50,000 GBP, and only 3,000 GBP went for compensation; which means about 130 GBP per word.

      But still you are correct, the judgment is for the act, whether it took 4 words (e.g. X is a pedophile) or 23.

  • Erm... small issue (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jimicus (737525) on Sunday March 13, 2011 @03:09PM (#35473326)

    The fine was £3,000. About £130/word.

    The legal fees are nothing to do with the fine - Britain has a "loser pays" legal system so being ordered to pay legal fees isn't considered part of the fine.

    On the plus side, this means there's a rather strong deterrent against frivolous lawsuits - "no win, no fee" (assuming your solicitor takes the case on that basis) only applies to your legal team, not the other sides. On the minus side, it means that a big company can add a paragraph to their legal threatograms saying "Please note that if you lose in court, you'll have to pay our fees. We're up to £1,500 already and we haven't even started yet."

    • by woolio (927141)

      On the minus side, it means that a big company can add a paragraph to their legal threatograms saying "Please note that if you lose in court, you'll have to pay our fees. We're up to £1,500 already and we haven't even started yet.

      Can we sue them for extortion, then?

      • by jimicus (737525)

        Can we sue them for extortion, then?

        IANAL, but it wouldn't surprise me if someone's already tried that.

        I'm going way off into the land of speculation here, so if any lawyers reading could correct me if I'm wrong that'd be great.

        The problem is that AFAICT the legal system doesn't really see itself as some big scary sleeping monster you really shouldn't poke (even if that's how the general public sees it). It sees itself as an impartial place you and someone else can go to and say "We've got a dispute here. Could you help us sort it out?".

  • Derp (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Legion303 (97901)

    "The fine works out at more than £2,400 per word."

    On the topic of meaningless algebra, if you express the length of a regulation football (American) field in cm it also works out to just under £5 per cm.

    If he were in free fall at terminal velocity for 10 seconds, he'd be spending over £96 for every meter he fell. That's a lot of money!

    Or we could stop expressing numbers idiotically and just say he was fined £3,000 and charged £50,000 in legal costs

  • Hasn't he read "Twitter grammar for dummies", chapter 2, "Watch your commas!" pp. 32-24 (2008)?

    Assignment 1: Tick the correct answer and then post it on Twitter:

    1. The Mayor said, Talbot is an ass.

    2. The Mayor, said Talbot, is an ass.

  • this case reaffirms that anything posted in the public domain is subject to libel laws.

    Did anyone really think that you got immunity from the law just because you were using the internet?

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