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Be Careful With What You Put Online

Be Careful With What You Put Online
May 21, 2019 Emily Parry


You may recall our recent article in respect of defamation, and the definition of “is likely to” with regards to harm. Recently, the Supreme Court in Stocker (Appellant) v Stocker (Respondent) [2019] UKSC 17 has heard an appeal as to whether the words “tried to strangle”, written during a Facebook exchange between Mrs Stocker (the Appellant) and a friend, were defamatory when used in the natural and ordinary meaning of the words.

Background

Mr Stocker (the Respondent) brought defamation proceedings against Mrs Stocker as he claimed “tried to strangle” meant that he had tried to kill Mrs Stocker. Mrs Stocker claimed the words meant that he grasped her around the neck and inhibited her breathing so as to put her in fear of being killed.

In the initial hearing, Mr Justice Mitting suggested that parties should refer to the Oxford English dictionary for the definition of “strangle” which meant:

  1. to kill by external compression of the throat, and
  2. to constrict the neck or throat painfully.

It was held that since Mr Stocker succeeded in strangling Mrs Stocker by constricting her neck (so much so that red marks were seen within 2 hours of the attack), the addition of “tried to” before “strangle” implied that Mr Stocker has intended to kill Mrs Stocker. Mrs Stocker’s Defence of Justification was dismissed.

The Court of Appeal held that the use of dictionaries does not form part of the process when determining the natural and ordinary meaning of the words, but that Mitting J did no harm when using the dictionary as it was only done as a check on the definition. The Court of Appeal therefore also dismissed Mrs Stocker’s appeal.

Judgment

However, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Mitting J had erred in law by starting with the dictionary definition, and failing to take into account the context of the Facebook post.

It was held that under Mitting J’s reasoning, it would have been better for Mrs Stocker to write “he strangled me” as opposed to “he tried to strangle me”. It was also agreed that Mitting J has not used the dictionary just to “check” the meaning of the word “strangle”, but used these definitions as the only possible meaning.

The role of the Court in defamation proceedings is to consider how the ordinary reader would construe the words and be conscious of the context in which the statement was written. Given the casual nature of Facebook and social media, the Supreme Court held that the Facebook post would have been interpreted as Mr Stocker grasping Mrs Stocker by the throat with force.

The Supreme Court held that Mrs Stocker’s Defence of Justification should succeed.

This case is a reminder that although the Court will look at the context in which a comment was made, what is written online may not always be read with the meaning it was intended to have. So be careful what you put online, especially when writing about another individual or company.

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