- Gabriella H Axelson
Importance of Defamation Laws
We live in an era where practically any information can be found on-line. Yet because all this information can be found on-line, it is becoming increasingly difficult to decipher what is fact and what is fiction. Anyone can post their opinion and perspective on social media sites, and almost anyone can have access to it. With so much information being readily available through social media sites, it is making it more common for crisis situations to arise, and making the process of handling these situations in a legal way more difficult.
MDG Defamation Strangle Case is a case that reflects these difficulties. In this lawsuit, “Nicola Stocker [defendant] had defamed her former husband, Ronald Stocker [claimant], in a Facebook exchange with his new partner in which she had said he tried to strangle her” (R. Stocker v N. Stocker, 2019). Mrs Stocker was initially found guilty on accounts of defamation, yet this ruling was overturned when a panel of five Justices at the Supreme Court declared the judge had made a “legal error” by “relying on the dictionary definition of ‘strangle’” (R. Stocker v N. Stocker, 2019). Lord Kerr explained that this error did not take into consideration how the hypothetical reader would interpret a post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. “Mr Justice Mitting’s error in relying upon the dictionary definition of the verb ‘to strangle’ as dictating the meaning of Mrs Stocker’s Facebook post meant that he then failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it . . . [as] readers of Facebook posts do not subject them to close analysis” (R. Stocker v N. Stocker, 2019). As the R. Stocker v N. Stocker shows, anything posted in a public setting can lead to a crisis situation where one’s reputation is at risk. While one potential solution for this could be to take legal action, the process can be long drawn out, costly, and rarely resolves the reputational damages caused.
Defamation laws are complex in that they often rely on creating meaning and understanding of what was said. In other words, defamation lawsuits rely on how what is being said can be interpreted. This means that while anyone could technically file a defamation lawsuit (in the sense that comments can always be interpreted as being negative), not everyone should file a lawsuit. Understanding when to file a claim and how to gather evidence will help any public relations practitioner handle a crisis situation successfully. On the contrary, understanding the legal implications of defamation lawsuits will help public relations practitioners avoid these kind of lawsuits. Furthermore, these laws and regulations vary from country to country, which will need to be taken into consideration when communicating with others on an international level. In addition, with as much constant change that is taking place, a media law practitioner and crisis communicator must pay attention to these ever-changing laws and regulations in order to understand the implications it may have.