Monroe v Hopkins

24 March 2017

The case of Monroe v Hopkins is the first time the Courts have considered whether the serious harm requirement of the Defamation Act 2013 has been met by tweets. It raises a number of interesting points as to how defamation claims arising on Twitter will be dealt with in future and what potential claimants and defendants should do.

Background

Food blogger and political activist Jack Monroe sued Katie Hopkins for defamation in respect of two tweets from May 2015. The Court decided that both tweets were defamatory, accusing Jack Monroe of condoning and approving of vandalising war memorials.

The Court then had to decide whether the tweets had caused serious harm to Jack Monroe’s reputation. 

Serious harm

Warby J found the two tweets had caused injury to Ms Monroe’s feelings. They left her upset, horrified about what people would think about her and fearing online abuse. The fact Ms Hopkins did not apologise – instead tweeting weeks later saying just “@MsJackMonroe I was confused about identity. I got it wrong” – meant that Ms Monroe’s feelings were still raw almost two years later when the case went to Court. 

Upset feelings alone, no matter how grave, are not enough to bring a successful defamation claim. Serious harm to reputation is required.

The parties raised 11 issues relevant to serious harm. The Judge did not consider all of these in detail, but found the “clear conclusion [is] that the serious harm requirement is satisfied, on the straightforward basis that the tweets complained of have a tendency to cause harm to this claimant’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious for her”. He concluded that the two tweets had caused Ms Monroe serious harm, albeit not grave harm or very serious harm and awarded £24,000 in damages and legal costs of at least £107,000. 

The Future of Twitter Libel cases

The impact this judgment will have remains to be seen, given its slightly unusual factual background. Ms Hopkins has also said she is likely to appeal the judgment.

There are however a number of aspects of the case which should be taken note of, given libel complaints about things said on Twitter – and other social media platforms – are only likely to increase.  

  1. Twitter is conversational, meaning users can say things in the heat of the moment, or mistakenly identify someone and risk causing them serious reputational harm. The Courts will not overly analyse 140 characters and will instead take an impressionistic approach, reading hyperlinked material as well as the series of tweets which followers and other users will have seen at the same time.  
  2. Tweets are transient and disappear from a user’s timeline relatively promptly. The Courts will look at the impact a tweet has, not how long users may be exposed to it. This equates Twitter to traditional methods of publication, as people may not read a defamatory newspaper article more than once. It is an example of how existing laws are applied to new means of publication. A schedule to the judgment details “How Twitter Works”. This will be helpful in future cases and we are likely to see the same approach for other social media platforms, where the nature of how they work and how they are used is relevant.  
  3. Where defamatory tweets are published in the context of people who are on  opposing sides of the political spectrum or a particular issue, it is no defence to say that people who saw the tweet would not have shifted their view of the claimant. Having different political views to someone does not mean you will think less of them if they are alleged to have condoned the vandalisation of a war memorial, or covered up sexual abuse. This means that you are not immune from a defamation claim just because all of your followers agree with what you say.   
  4. Take care before you respond to a defamatory tweet. Your reaction, including denials of the allegations, can be relevant, but will not be regarded the same as an apology or retraction by the defendant. A claimant’s tweets will not be seen by everyone who saw the defendant’s tweets and would not have the same impact, even if they were. A defendant may also try to use your reactions against you.
  5. Heed the judge’s warning in respect of deleting tweets or abusive messages received. As these may be disclosable – because they are relevant to the extent of publication or the harm which the tweets caused – you should preserve and retain them, and Twitter Analytics based on them, before anything is deleted. 

Future cases involving defamation on Twitter will throw up different facts and issues but the points above are of general application. As with the majority of defamation cases, this case could have been settled at an early stage. A quick and proper apology would have undone some of the reputational harm and saved Ms Hopkins a significant amount of money, particularly as her initial tweet was a case of mistaken identity. 

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About the Author

Ben Hobbs

Partner

Ben specialises in reputation protection. His work covers defamation, privacy, harassment and intellectual property rights.

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