Time to brush up on your Social Media law?

The dangers in using Facebook and Twitter were highlighted again this week when people who tweeted alleged photos of child killer Jon Venables were likely to be charged with contempt of court. A simple tweet, a split-second decision when online, could result in criminal charges for some.

Legal action is being taken against several people who circulated photos on Twitter which allegedly showed one of James Bulger’s killers, Jon Venables, whereas there is a publishing ban in force to prevent the identities of either Jon Venables or Robert Thompson being revealed.The offence of contempt of court could result in a fine or even imprisonment.

This is the latest in a series of high-profile Social Media cases in the headlines over the last few years, as legislators, authorities and the media grapple with the issues of online commentary and gossip.

Observers are beginning to suggest that active users of Social Media should be aware of the basics of media law and libel.

The recent case of Lord McAlpine highlighted the issue of libellous activity on the micro-blogging platform Twitter. In November 2012 Lord McAlpine declared he would be seeking libel damages from Twitter users over defamatory and incorrect gossip linking him to historic child sex abuse claims. The BBC’s Newsnight programme had already settled a substantial damages claim with Lord McAlpine. Whilst Newsnight did not actually name him, the programme led to a flurry of online activity and gossip on Twitter, guessing the name of the “high profile” peer.

Twitter users should be aware that the law of libel is clear whether the source is a newspaper or a Twitter account: if you make a defamatory allegation about someone, you can be sued for libel. Lord McAlpine is the first to really test the application of libel law in relation to Social Media.

If the tweet (or retweet, the rules are the same) is found to damage someone’s reputation “in the estimation of right thinking members of society” by exposing individuals to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”, it could be considered libellous and the Twitter user could find themselves with a large damages bill.

Under a future Defamation Bill, claimants will have to show that the words used caused “substantial harm” rather than just “harm” to their reputations.

With regard to reporting sexual offences, media organisations are banned from naming the victims of sexual assaults, and it appears that the same rules apply to social media users. In the case of Ched Evans, who was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in April 2012, 6,000 tweets followed with some Twitter users deciding the name the victim claiming she was “crying rape”. 9 of these Twitter users were fined by Welsh magistrates as a result.

Other recent cases include:

– Juror Joanne Fraill jailed for 8 months after contacting a defendant in a trial via Facebook;
– Paul Chambers joking on Twitter that he would blow up the Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster;
– Sean Duffy mocking dead children on social media sites and being jaled for “grossly offensive” comments;
– 750,000 Twitter users naming Ryan Giggs who was at the centre of an injunction row.

More details on these cases, as well as the differences between English Law and Scottish Law, check out this article on the BBC.