Mumsnet settles with Gina Ford over defamation claims
Calls for change in libel laws
As childcare author Gina Ford drops her defamation suit against parenting website Mumsnet as part of a settlement reached by the two parties this week, Mumsnet has launched a campaign for a thorough review of UK libel law to make it fit for purpose in the internet age.
In a statement on the site, Mumsnet cofounder Justine Roberts writes: "Put crudely, the current legal situation is the rough equivalent of trying to use a set of railway signals to control the air traffic over Heathrow – the principles may be fine but different forms of communication, just like different forms of transport, require a different approach."
As long ago as 2002, she notes, the Law Commission recognised the problem of applying the current libel laws to internet publishers, especially chat forums. Currently, the law sees no difference between a bulletin board and a newspaper.
And thanks to a precedent set in the Godfrey v. Demon case in 2000, which set out the now familiar "notice and takedown" rules, ISPs are deemed responsible for any defamatory material they have been made aware of, and not moved "swiftly" to take down.
But Roberts says this has terrible consequences for free speech, something that should be being protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. Because many sites are small operations, often run on good will, or as a hobby, the result is that anything claimed as defamatory is likely to be taken down, rather than settled in court.
Roberts wants clarification and a greater respect for the right to free speech. She says the Mumsnet team has written to the Department of Constitutional Affairs to urge a review to clarify and update libel laws.
How swift is "swift", she asks? When does a site's liability for its content cease? And how should a court consider allegations of defamation: is a single defamatory post still likely to make a person think ill of someone if the rest of the thread is full of people defending the person who is being defamed?
Roberts continues: "Faced with any complaint about a bulletin board posting, website publishers, frequently small businesses or individuals with limited resources, find themselves with little choice but to remove the posting, with obvious consequences for freedom of speech.
"We accept that individuals have a right to protect their reputations. However, this right always has to be balanced against the rights of others to freedom of expression. At present we believe that this balance is not struck in the right place."
Ford had demanded closure of the site as a whole, after a string of comments criticising her childcare methods were posted on the site's forums. While the lawyers argued, Mumsnet barred all discussion of Ford and her controversial approach to child rearing from its forums. Now that a settlement has been reached, this ban has been lifted.
The battling parties issued a joint statement yesterday: "Mumsnet is pleased to announce that the site has reached a settlement of the long-running dispute with Gina Ford, and that Gina Ford has agreed not to pursue legal action against mumsnet.com or their ISP... Mumsnet apologises to Gina Ford for the comments made about her by some mumsnet users, and has made a contribution to Gina Ford's legal costs." ®
Put up or shut up ?
Moving on from the Mumsnet Vs Gina Ford situation Justine Roberts of Mumsnet and others have continued their campaign to (apparently) have the law changed.
But when you dig into the posts by Justine, I've so far found she doesn't have any actuall suggestions. She just wants change.
- or does she just want more Mumsnet publicity ?
- Perhaps because the current UK law is not as easy as she'd like it to be as a journalist and Web site owner ?
I hope that she (and other journalists) will either put up some sensible, practicle altnative suggestions to the current libel laws. Or that they will stop complaining that they have to check their facts before publishing information that could include lies that cause damage.
For more information on this see http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk?topicid=1374&threadid=320920
Heck, if somebody can come up with a better system, fantastic.
beat this one !!
I apparently libelled "mickey mouse" .Now the only way that someone could have found out exactly who "mickey mouse" was in this case was if a Court made an order that the ISP disclose the user name via the IP address. Anyway I was found guilty of libel against the guy behind "mickey mouse" even though that same mickey mouse had sent me email previously telling me to "F off "and the like.Strange but true, and shows you just what to expect from Courts.
Hosting in America....
Ironic as it seems it might be one of those times where it is beneficial to host your site on a .com in the US, through a US registrar rather than host in the UK.
At least they have certain protections for the sites themselves on content posted.