Harassment and defamation on the internet
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Can you sue someone for spreading lies about you on the internet?
There used to be a perception that people were allowed to post various content on social media without having to be fearful of any consequences, where if the same information was published in a newspaper or communicated in person, the consequences would have been very serious to them.
Essentially, there is one law for online and for offline harassment and defamation. In the early days of the internet, online activities used to be treated as conversations, generally speaking, outside of the realm of the general law. There was a belief that there were almost two different societies governed by two different sets of rules, one for online and one for offline social activities.
Although some internet users, and even in some cases the police, are still holding this belief, the true position is that there are no different laws that apply to offline offending, which do not equally apply to offending on the internet. It is true that the so called offline society is considered to be heavily policed and regulated whilst the online society appears to many to be operating outside the general law. However, the legal position is that harassing or defaming other people, will have the same consequences whether done online or offline.
Offending posts on the internet might be considered as both, defamation and harassment and as such, may be subjected to criminal sanctions under harassment law as well as civil law penalties under harassment and defamation laws. If the offending posts are untrue, they might be considered defamatory. Because offending internet posts tend to stay online for a long time, the very same posts that are defamatory, may also be considered as harassing posts.
If the intention of the publisher of the defamatory posts is to cause the victim harassment and distress, it might be possible for the victim to bring legal action under either defamation or harassment, or in some cases, under both.
Harassment is both a civil wrongdoing and a criminal wrongdoing. So, if you believe that you are being harassed on the internet by extensive postings of untrue statements, you could potentially take the matter to the police and ask the police to investigate. You may ask the police to help you remove the harassing and defamatory internet posts and to arrest and possibly prosecute the person who posted them.
If the police are unhelpful, you may decide to take the matter to a civil court, and bring a legal claim under either defamation law or harassment law, or under both, subject, of course, to receiving appropriate legal advice.
There are many cases where harassment and defamation on the internet can turn into either cases of harassment or cases of defamation or even two separate cases of harassment and defamation.
One of the most notorious examples of a case of defamation, turning into a case of harassment, is the case known as the Hampstead Satanic Cult. Our specialist solicitor Yair Cohen, acted for two of the victims in the case, after a 74 years old woman began posting false allegations against parents at a primary school in Hempstead, London.
In her posts, she alleged that the parents had been involved in satanic rituals against young children. Her claims were picked up by conspiracy theorists in America and turned viral.
The police insisted that this was a civil case of defamation because of the untrue nature of the statements and videos posted. It took 4 appeals, including a final one which was made directly to the Director of Public Prosecutions in England, to persuade the police that despite the defamatory nature of the online posts, this was in fact a case of online harassment.
The false claims devastated the lives of dozens of parents at the school and the lives of their children, who in some cases had to change their names to avoid being falsely identified on the internet as victims of sexual abuse and satanic rituals by their own parents.
The outcome of the Hampstead Satanic Cult harassment case was that the harasser, despite her advanced age, received a prison sentence of nine years, the longest ever imposed in any harassment case in UK legal history.
Unfortunately, the police often give victims of harassment on the internet, in cases where there are elements of defamation to the complainant, the wrong advice, which broadly speaking, consists of leaving the internet for a while until it all goes away. The reality is that defamation and harassment online do not go away just because the victim decided to switch off social media.
In another case, reported in the Evening Standard, a web designer, Paul Britton, who defamed one of his own clients on the internet, falsely accusing him of being a paedophile, was eventually prosecuted by the police, but only after an intervention by the victim’s solicitor, Yair Cohen.
The police, at first, refused to investigate Mr Britton, because the harassing posts about his victim were defamatory. The police advised the victim, Mr Phipps, to not look at the posts and to seek support from the civil courts, perhaps in a claim for defamation.
Following Mr Cohen's intervention in the case, Mr Britton was prosecuted for harassment, convicted 1 year in jail, suspended for 12 months. Following his conviction for harassment, Mr Britton was also taken to court for defamation where in addition to the punishment he received from the criminal court for harassment, he was also ordered to pay his victim compensation for defaming him.