Landmark Facebook Libel Case

13 February 2014

Comments allegedly posted to a private Facebook account have resulted in a libel judgment in the High Court.

Joanne Walder accused Sharon Smith of posting statements that alleged that Ms Walder had engaged in criminal acts of violence, even though Ms Smith’s profile page was set to “private”. Ms Walder says the statements were false and unfounded. The judgment could be the first successful claim of its kind that deals with status updates that have been posted on a private profile – which meant that they were only visible to Ms Smith’s 300 friends.

Ms Smith’s sister then copied the comments to her wall – which meant that they were now visible to at least 650 “friends” – but that profile was public, which meant that the allegations could in theory be read by anyone. The solicitor for Ms Walder said that “what is clear is that a claim in defamation can be successful even where the comments in question have been made to a private group of friends”.

Ms Smith was therefore held liable for posting the comments up herself, but also for the further publication to “a significant but unknown number of persons”. Ms Walder is claiming more than £20,000 in damages, but the hearing on costs and damages is yet to be heard, and Ms Smith says that she intends to appeal the judgment.

A statement on behalf of Ms Smith said: “The message which prompted the case was only meant to be sent to a close friend. However, it ended up being posted to all her friends — clearly showing the potential pitfalls of Facebook.” The judgment serves as another reminder to those who don’t think before they post online.

Coinciding with Facebook’s 10th birthday, Schillings recently hosted a roundtable event where attendees were asked whether they agreed with the statement that “serious claims on the internet should not be ignored”. 93% agreed, and it would seem the courts are taking the same view.

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About the Author

Joelle Rich

Legal Director

Joelle specialises in privacy, defamation, private family law and intellectual property rights, with clients ranging from high profile and high-net worth individuals to companies in the financial sphere.

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