Facebook defamation is not necessarily illegal

That the respondent in the latest High Court Facebook defamation case, M v B, was ordered to remove defamatory posts on Facebook isn’t remarkable. What is more interesting about that case is that it reiterates a principle that a court will not step in and proactively block future defamatory posts.

The applicant in this case, M (SAFLII redacts personal information about parties in cases it publishes in certain circumstances), brought an urgent application to the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Court on 9 September 2013 to order his ex-wife, B, to –

  1. “remove all messages as contained in annexure ‘D’ to the applicant’s founding affidavit, from her Facebook page;”
  2. “refrain from posting any defamatory statements about the applicant on her Facebook page;” and
  3. “refrain from in any way making, publishing and/or distributing defamatory statements about the applicant.”

The urgent application was successful and M was granted an interim order which M subsequently sought to have made final. Judge Chetty’s judgment on this was delivered just over a year after the initial application was launched, on 19 September 2014.

Background

Judge Chetty gave the following background to the applications:

[3] It is necessary to sketch the brief history of the matter, and particularly the facts giving rise to the launching of the application. The applicant and the respondent are the biological parents of a minor child, a daughter P born in July 2008. At the time of the launching of the application, the child was five years old. The respondent and the applicant were never married, and at the time of the institution of these proceedings, were no longer in a relationship. P lives with the respondent. In terms of an arrangement between the parties, the applicant has contact with his child every alternate weekend from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. It is not disputed that in accordance with this agreement, the applicant picked up his daughter on the weekend commencing 30 August 2013 and returned her to the respondent on Sunday 1 September 2013.

[4] During the course of this particular weekend the applicant and his daughter visited the house of a friend, and ended up staying over. During the course of the evening, other friends gathered at the house eventually resulting in P sharing a bed with an adult female, who is a pre-primary school teacher, and someone known to her as she had babysat P on previous occasions. The applicant has categorically stated that he has never had a romantic relationship with the teacher concerned. P was safely returned to her mother on the Sunday.

[5] In the week that followed, the applicant received calls from several friends drawing his attention to a posting by the respondent on Facebook, under the heading “DEBATE”. The posting reads as follows:

‘DEBATE: your ex has your daughter (5) for the weekend and is sleeping at a mates house. They all (about six adults) go jolling and your ex’s drunk, 50 yr old girl “friend” ends up sleeping with your daughter cause he doesn’t want his girl “friend” sleeping in a single bed she can share the double bed with his/your daughter! How would you feel?’

[6] It is not in dispute that at the time of this posting the respondent had 592 “Facebook friends”. A number of the respondent’s ‘friends’ responded to her posting and were critical of the behaviour of the applicant. The respondent further contributed towards the debate by making subsequent postings to that set out above. These postings or messages appear as annexure ‘A’ to the applicant’s founding papers. The initial postings resulted in a further debate with the respondent’s brother S[…] B[…], who questioned the aspersions cast by the respondent on the applicant and the teacher with whom P shared a bed. These postings appear as annexure ‘B’ to the applicant’s founding papers.

[7] In light of the postings, which the applicant regarded as defamatory and detrimental to his business reputation, he engaged his attorneys who wrote to the respondent on 4 September 2013 clarifying that during the weekend in which the applicant had access to P, at no time therein was she placed in any danger, nor was her safety compromised in any way. His attorneys then called upon the respondent to remove the offending postings (annexures ‘A’ and ‘B ‘to the founding papers) from her Facebook page by the close of business on 4 September 2013, failing which they threatened litigation.

[8] According to the respondent, she removed the offending postings by 5 September 2013. Accordingly, at the time when the application came before my colleague Nkosi J, the respondent contended in her opposing affidavit that there was no need for the application as she had long since complied with the demand and removed the postings. In support of the submission, the respondent attached an SMS received from the applicant on 5 September 2013 stating:

‘And well done on removing your false Facebook posting – you’ve saved yourself from a lawsuit. Ensure no further defamatory posts are put up or you’ll find yourself in Court!!’

[9] As is evident from the prayers sought in the Notice of Motion, notwithstanding the removal of postings in the form of annexures A and B, the applicant persisted in his application for urgent relief on the basis that the respondent had failed to take down the postings on what is referred to as her Facebook Wall, which the applicant contends “retained a partisan version of the debate”. The postings on the respondent Face Wall appeared as annexure D to the applicant’s founding affidavit. The applicant contended that the contents of annexure ‘D’ defamed him, even though the respondent has deleted the earlier postings on her Facebook page. In order to understand the applicant’s complaint, a perusal of the respondent’s Facebook Wall reflects the contents of active debate taking place between the respondent and her friends. The subject of the debate continues to be the incident relating to the applicant’s care (or neglect) of his daughter over the weekend at the end of August 2013. In particular, the opening message on the applicant’s Facebook Wall is the following:

‘This is my FB page which I can get opinions on matters close to my heart, if you don’t like it then go read someone else’s and defriend me!’

[10] This message was posted in response to earlier messages from the respondent’s brother, S[…] B[…], who it would appear, did not take kindly to the insinuations of neglect aimed at the applicant.

The Court’s decision

These facts are pretty similar to two 2013 Facebook defamation case which I wrote about, H v W and Isparta v Richter and Another. The order directing B to remove defamatory posts from her Facebook Wall was not particularly controversial. There was some discussion about the timing of the application and B’s efforts to remove some defamatory posts but this order was in line with Judge Willis’ judgment in H v W and Acting Judge Hiemstra in Isparta v Richter and Another. After considering arguments from both sides, Judge Chetty found against B:

[20] Other than a denial that the postings were defamatory, the respondent does not make out any argument of the public interest in respect of the statements attributed to the applicant. I am satisfied that the applicant was entitled to approach the Court on an urgent basis at the time that he did. I am accordingly satisfied that the applicant has made out a case for first part of the rule nisi, in terms of the relief sought in prayer 2.1 of the Notice of Motion, to be confirmed.

Facebook_defamation

The Court then moved on to the second part of the matter, namely whether M should be entitled to a final order, essentially, prohibiting B from publishing defamatory comments about M in the future. This may seem like a perfectly reasonable order but it is important to bear in mind that just because a comment is defamatory, doesn’t mean that it is wrongful. As Judge Chetty pointed out –

[24] On the other hand, the respondent submitted that there is no basis at common law for a Court to curtail the respondent in respect of material which is not as yet known to the Court, nor has it been presented or published. As such the Court is asked to speculate on what could constitute a defamatory statement, uttered or published by the respondent against the applicant. It was correctly submitted in my view that even if the statement in the future by the respondent is defamatory of the applicant, it is equally so that not every defamatory statement is per se actionable in that the respondent may have a good defence to its publication. For example, the respondent might be under a legal duty to furnish information about the applicant in connection with an investigation of a crime, or she could be a member of a public body which places on her a social duty to make defamatory statements about the applicant. To this extent, the respondent may make defamatory statements about the applicant in circumstances where they may be a qualified privilege. Obviously it would be necessary to ascertain the nature of the occasion in order to determine whether any privilege attaches to it. The difficulty in granting such an order is evident, albeit in the context of the publication of an article, from the judgement in Roberts v The Critic Ltd & others 1919 WLD 26 at 30–31 where the Court held:

‘I think I have jurisdiction to make an order restraining the publication of a specific statement that is defamatory, but in the present case I am asked to restrain the publication of an article in so far as it is defamatory; if the applicant’s contention is correct this will come to the same thing as restraining any continuation of the article at all, because that contention is that no continuation of the article can be written that is not defamatory… . There is the grave difficulty in the way of granting an interdict restraining the publication of an article which purports to deal with a matter of great public interest, and which I have not before me. It is impossible to say what it will contain, however grave one’s suspicions may be. The respondents specifically state that the continuation will not be libellous, nor will it slander the petitioner; nor will it affect her good name and fair fame. It can only be determined upon the publication of the article if this statement be true. I think it is impossible for me to deal with it now. In the cases I have referred to the defendants insisted on the right to publish the statements complained of. The interdict must therefore be discharged.’

[25] At the same time it has also been held that it is lawful to publish a defamatory statement which is fair comment on facts that are true and in matters of public interest, as well as in circumstances where it is reasonably necessary for and relevant to the defence of one’s character or reputation. Counsel relied on the judgement of Willis J in H v W (supra) para 40 in support of his submission that Courts should not be eager to prohibit or restrict parties in respect of future conduct, of which one can only speculate in the present. The Court held that:

‘Although judges learn to be adept at reading tealeaves, they are seldom good at gazing meaningfully into crystal balls. For this reason, I shall not go so far as “interdicting and restraining the respondent from posting any information pertaining to the applicant on Facebook or any other social media”. I have no way of knowing for certain that there will be no circumstances in the future that may justify publication about the applicant.’

Although judges probably wouldn’t have a difficulty ordering a person not to do something that is clearly and unjustifiably wrongful in the future (that is largely what an interdict is for), the challenge M faced with this part of his application is that a future defamatory statement could well be justifiable and not wrongful. As I pointed out in my post, Judge Willis considered a couple justifications in H v W –

After exploring Twitter briefly, Judge Willis turned to established case law in South Africa including authority for the proposition Roos expressed that a privacy infringement can be justified in a similar way that defamation can be justified and a more recent Supreme Court of Appeal judgment in the 2004 Mthembi-Mahanyele v Mail & Guardian case which, according to Judge Willis –

affirmed the principle that the test for determining whether the words in respect of which there is a
complaint have a defamatory meaning is whether a reasonable person of ordinary intelligence might reasonably understand the words concerned to convey a meaning defamatory of the litigant concerned

The Court, in the Mthembi-Mahanyele case set out the test for defamation as follows (and cited a 1993 case in the then-Appellate Division of Argus Printing and Publishing Co Ltd v Esselen’s Estate) –

The test for determining whether words published are defamatory is to ask whether a ‘reasonable person of ordinary intelligence might reasonably understand the words … to convey a meaning defamatory of the plaintiff… . The test is an objective one. In the absence of an innuendo, the reasonable person of ordinary intelligence is taken to understand the words alleged to be defamatory in their natural and ordinary meaning. In determining this natural and ordinary meaning the Court must take account not only of what the words expressly say, but also of what they imply’

Referencing one of the justifications for (or defences to) defamation, namely that the defamatory material be true and to the public benefit or in the public interest, Judge Willis drew an important distinction that is worth bearing in mind –

A distinction must always be kept between what ‘is interesting to the public’ as opposed to ‘what it is in the public interest to make known’. The courts do not pander to prurience.

The Court moved on to explore another justification, fair comment. In order to qualify as “fair comment” –

the comment “must be based on facts expressly stated or clearly indicated and admitted or proved to be true”

The person relying on this justification must prove that the comment is, indeed, fair comment and “malice or improper motive” will defeat this justification or defence, regardless of its demonstrably factual nature. In this particular case, the Court found that W acted maliciously and she was unable to prevail with this defence.

Because defamation can be justified in appropriate circumstances and because judges can’t predict when defamatory statements will be justifiable in a particular context, proactively blocking defamatory Facebook posts is inherently problematic. Judge Chetty summarised the point:

As set out earlier this argument must fail because it is clear that not every defamatory statement made by the respondent about the applicant would be actionable.

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