What's the meaning of this?
Supreme Court guidance on the interpretation of potentially defamatory social media comments is particularly important for family and tech lawyers, as Laurence Toczek explains
Family and technology lawyers need to note the Supreme Court’s recent judgment in Stocker v Stocker  UKSC 17 which contains useful guidance on the approach to be adopted in defamation proceedings arising from statements made on social media. The latest statistics reveal there are 45 million social media users in the UK with the figure rising each year, so this is a matter of great importance. NOT WHAT I MEANT In Stocker, the marriage between the claimant and the defendant broke down and the claimant began a relationship with another woman. The defendant had an exchange on Facebook with the other woman in which she made various derogatory remarks about the claimant, including an allegation that the claimant had “tried to strangle her”. The post came to the attention of the claimant who issued defamation proceedings against his former wife. He admitted there had been an altercation between them on the occasion referred to. However, he denied he had tried to kill her – which, he contended, was the meaning of the offending words. The defendant, on the other hand, argued that the post meant simply that he had violently gripped her neck. While acknowledging this was a defamatory statement in itself, she relied on the defence of justification (the post was made before the Defamation Act 2013 came into force which relabeled justification as truth).
The trial judge held that in order to decide what the defendant’s words meant, reference should be made to an authoritative dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which provides two possible meanings for the word ‘strangle’: (a) to kill by external compression of the throat; and (b) to constrict the neck or throat painfully. The judge decided that the first meaning should be attributed to the words. Accordingly, the defence of justification had to fail and judgment was given in favour of the claimant. The defendant’s appeal to the Court of Appeal was unsuccessful and she appealed to the Supreme Court. Here, Lord Kerr gave the leading speech and held that the trial judge had adopted the wrong approach to interpretation in this context. He said the meaning of the allegedly defamatory statement “is to be determined according to how it would be understood by the ordinary reasonable reader. Lord Kerr went on to deal with situations such as the present one where the allegedly defamatory words have the potential to convey more than one possible meaning.
He confirmed the continuing validity of the ‘single meaning rule’: “Where a statement has more than one plausible meaning, the question of whether defamation has occurred can only be answered by deciding that one particular meaning should be ascribed to the statement. It is for the judge to decide which meaning to plump for.” Finally, Lord Kerr considered the correct approach to allegedly defamatory posts on social media sites: “The fact that this was a Facebook post is critical. The twentyfirst century has brought with it a new class of reader: the social media user.
The judge tasked with deciding how a Facebook post or a tweet on Twitter would be interpreted by a social media user must keep in mind the way in which such posts and tweets are made and read. Lord Kerr concluded that the ordinary reader would have interpreted it as meaning the claimant had grasped her by the throat and applied force to her neck rather than tried deliberately to kill her. As the evidence established that the claimant had, at the very least, done this (red marks on the defendant’s neck were visible to police officers two hours after the attack on her took place), the defence of justification was made out. The appeal was allowed. While the claim in Stocker ultimately failed, the case is nevertheless a stark warning of the dangers of imprudent posts on social media. Family lawyers conducting initial interviews should advise their clients about the danger of posting comments about former partners or other individuals on social media. Lord Kerr’s speech is essential reading for all tech lawyers involved in online defamation claims.