How to tweet without being sued for libel


George Galloway's decision, in the wake of his appearance on Question Time, to sue Hadley Freeman of the Guardian (for allegedly calling him an antisemite) and to have his lawyers send letters to several private individuals who tweeted similar material is a timely reminder that social media can lead to court action, even for unknown "publishers".

So, as the JC’s libel lawyer, I offer some basic guidelines for any readers thinking of using their smartphones or computers to let off steam into the Twittersphere:

Writing something unpleasant about somebody can be a libel whether it appears in a newspaper or your modestly followed Twitter feed. You cannot say you did not mean it or that you are an amateur messing around. As Sally Bercow found out when tweeting about the late Lord MacAlpine, when we put our pen to paper or our finger to a keypad, we also put our money where our mouth is.

Just throwing insults at somebody ("that lawyer is a real pig") won’t get you sued for libel unless it would make right-thinking people think the worse of the subject of attack ("that lawyer is dishonest").

‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ won’t do either. Ms Bercow’s supposed ignorance about Lord MacAlpine’s name trending on Twitter as the Peer who abused children found no favour with the court and she had to fork out significant damages and lawyers’ fees for repeating the libel.

Be clear about what you mean to say. It’s one thing to accuse George Galloway of being anti-Zionist. I’m sure he’d happily agree. But calling him an antisemite is quite a different thing and no, not every attack on Israel can be treated as antisemitic.

If you’re still brave enough to reach for your smartphone, are you sure that what you are about to tweet is true? Publishers have to prove their story, or at least that they’ve investigated it properly. If you’re not sure, don’t publish it.

Honest opinions are allowed. So it would be acceptable for somebody to say that he genuinely believed that sustained verbal attacks by an individual against Israel could incite antisemitism among other people. But it’s sometimes harder to say whether a direct accusation of antisemitism is an opinion or a statement of fact. Unless you are sure of your ground or have a fancy lawyer on hand,I would recommend steering away from a full frontal attack like this.

Just because someone else has tweeted something, that doesn’t let you off the hook. Retweeting a libel will simply land you in the proverbial as well, even if it comes from a respectable source.

If you do decide to go ahead, could you afford to defend yourself if a complaint arrives? Libel cases are hugely expensive and the damages can be swingeing. A recent case involved a tweet to 65 people claiming that a cricketer had been involved in match-fixing. The judge awarded £75,000 damages.

If you have published something and fear you can’t defend it, take legal advice as soon as possible. If you have to apologise, best to do so fast.

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