Defamation law’s chilling effects on social media

If you look to recent cases, you generally see this issue arising in the context of politicians and sports personalities whose indiscretions are published online (usually Twitter) and disseminated rapidly. Embarrassed plaintiffs and applicants approach courts, indignant, and seek to silence the debates and expressions of schadenfreude. The courts, applying the law as they understand it to this new medium, grant orders which sometimes just seem to be out of touch with new realities. What concerns me about these cases is that simply applying these legal principles to this new, unprecedented landscape can, and often does, have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. 

What you can legally say on Twitter

When it comes to acceptable conduct on Twitter and, defamation in particular, our law will govern how South African Twitter users use Twitter and may well inform how Twitter responds to improper use of its service too. Although simply making defamatory statements is not immediately actionable, doing so unjustifiably likely is wrongful and can expose you to legal proceedings seeking to stop you, to remove your defamatory statements or even to claim financial compensation from you. That said, there would be a tension between Twitter's approach to users' freedom of expression and local judicial authorities' approach which could be interesting but, on the whole, Twitter will likely respect local laws which are aligned, at least ostensibly, with its values.

Your Oscar Pistorius conjecture could get you sued

In all likelihood, most of the conjecture about Pistorius’ guilt is defamatory and the question is whether those defamatory statements are justifiable and that remains to be seen. If you are engaged in a debate about the case, it may be prudent for you to be measured in your statements and avoid potentially prejudicial declarations.

Johannesburg High Court rules on Facebook defamation

The innocuous looking case of H v W which was handed down in the South Gauteng High Court on 30 January 2013 is anything but. Judge Willis’ 30 page judgment recognises the harm a Facebook post can do to a person’s reputation and throws the weight of the Court behind the person defamed (and who can afford the legal fees).

Shaun Dewberry and NetDynamix clash over streaming radio statistics

  A storm over Netdynamix's reported listener statistics has erupted after Shaun Dewberry, a self-described "digital rockstar with a passion for rock music (especially South African), motorcycles (especially Superbikes), and life hacking (especially nmap)", published a report titled "The Truth Behind Streaming Internet Radio In South Africa" challenging Netdynamix's reported statistics. NetDynamix is an audio... Continue Reading →

The trouble with online defamation

I frequently receive calls or emails from people asking for help with online defamation, usually on Facebook. The people who contact me are often at their wits' end and want to sue the people defaming them, thinking that will fix the problem. Unfortunately, that can often make it worse. The challenge with online defamation is... Continue Reading →

Courts are not always interested in defamation cases

An Hendrina attorney, James Charles Reynecke Smith, recently had his appeal to the Pretoria High Court regarding his unsuccessful defamation claim rejected because "the incident was insignificant and did not warrant the court's attention". According to News24, Smith had just moved into new offices and was having new carpets installed. Mats apparently had to be... Continue Reading →

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