Libel update: Definitions of words used in social media posts not to be found in dictionaries!04Jun2019
In a recent high-profile Facebook libel case following an acrimonious divorce in Stocker v Stocker, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that when determining the natural and ordinary meaning of words published on social media – fleeting and hastily written – the First Instance Judge mistakenly used a dictionary definition as the starting point.
The events leading up to Stocker v Stocker sparked considerable interest from the press, domestic violence advocates, and media lawyers.
Nicola and Ronald Stocker were husband and wife. On 23 March 2003, the police were called to the Stocker family home. Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the throat so tightly that he had left red marks on her neck which were visible to police officers 2 hours after the incident.
7 years later, their marriage ended in acrimony and divorce. Mr Stocker formed a new relationship with a Ms Bligh. On 23 December 2012, an exchange took place on Facebook between Mrs Stocker and Ms Bligh in which Mrs Stocker ‘told’ Ms Bligh that Mr Stocker had “tried to strangle” her.
Mrs Stocker’s claim on Facebook that Mr Stocker had “tried to strangle” her spurred him on to start defamation proceedings against his ex-wife. He claimed that the meaning of the words “tried to strangle me” were that he had tried to kill her by strangulation. Mrs Stocker denied that the words bore that meaning, and claimed that the words would be understood to mean that Mr Stocker had grasped her by the neck and inhibited her breathing so as to put her in fear of being killed (a fine distinction between the two meanings).
The High Court accepted Mr Stocker’s meaning, but was ultimately overturned in a unanimous and significant Supreme Court ruling.
During the hearing at First Instance, Hon Mitting J referred to the Oxford English Dictionary to assist him in deciding the meaning of the word “strangle”. The dictionary offered two alternative meanings: a) to kill by external compression of the throat; and b) to constrict the neck or throat painfully.
Hon. Mitting J decided that because Mrs Stocker had written that her ex-husband had “tried” to strangle her, the words could not have meant the latter of those two alternative dictionary definitions (i.e. he had indeed constricted her neck painfully; he hadn’t “tried” to do so). It was therefore decided at First Instance that the words could only have the first of the two dictionary meanings (i.e. that the husband had tried (but failed) to kill her by external pressure of the throat). Hon Mitting J decided that the words were defamatory and (because it was accepted that Mr Stocker had not in fact tried to kill his then wife) Mrs Stocker could not rely on the defence of justification (i.e. the truth).
Mrs Stocker appealed from this decision on the basis that Hon Mitting J’s determination of the single meaning of her words was wrong, and that the Judge had relied too heavily on the dictionary definition.
Court of Appeal
The decision of the High Court was upheld by the Court of Appeal, which considered that Hon Mitting J simply used the dictionary definitions as a check, and ruled that his “ultimate reasoning was sound”.
Mrs Stocker appealed from this ruling to the Supreme Court, where it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) unanimously overturned.
Finding in Mrs Stocker’s favour, the Supreme Court rejected Hon Mitting J’s strict adherence to the dictionary definition of the verb “to strangle” and ruled that his narrow interpretation of the words had been an error of law.
It was said that the Judge’s approach produces an obviously anomalous result in that the phrase “he strangled me” on his analysis, produces a less serious accusation than the phrase “he tried to strangle me”. This is the consequence of confining the meaning to two alternative dictionary definitions, thereby creating a rather strained meaning.
Contrary to the view of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court decided that the Judge was not using the dictionary definition simply as a “check” – he referred to these definitions before hearing any legal argument about meaning and did not use the word “check” in his judgment or in his exchanges with the lawyers in the case.
The primary role of the Court is to focus on how the ordinary reasonable reader would construe and interpret the words used. To fulfil this obligation, the Court should be aware of the context in which the statement is made to determine its natural and ordinary meaning. The fact that this was a Facebook post was critical, and it was necessary for the Judge to keep in mind the way in which such postings are both made and read. It is unwise and unrealistic to search a Facebook post for its theoretical or logical meaning. The search for a natural and ordinary meaning should reflect that this is a casual medium in the nature of a conversation, rather than a carefully chosen expression. People scroll through Facebook quickly, and their reaction to posts is impressionistic and fleeting.
The Supreme Court found that the Judge had failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how an ordinary reader of the Facebook post would have understood it. It was decided that an ordinary reader of the post would have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck.
In light of this finding, Mrs Stocker’s defence of justification succeeded.
This recent decision by the UK Supreme Court has been welcomed by campaigners for victims of domestic abuse. Mrs Stocker’s lawyer commented that his client had finally ‘got some common-sense and justice’. It may indeed seem intuitive that the phrase “he tried to strangle me” is not synonymous with “he tried to kill me”.
From a defamation law perspective, this case has provided significant guidance on accusations made via social media. The Supreme Court ruling demonstrates that the Courts will take ‘context’ into account when deciding on social media libel claims.
This is not the first time the UK Courts have examined this. For example Hon Nicklin J commented in the case Monir v Wood  EWHC 3525 (QB) that:
“Twitter is a fast moving medium. People will tend to scroll through messages relatively quickly… It is very important when assessing the meaning of a tweet not to be over-analytical…”
The context of social media should be a crucial factor when deciding the natural and ordinary meaning of words and phrases in libel cases.
The above is not intended to be relied on as legal advice and specific legal advice should be sought at all times in relation to the above.
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Disclaimer: This publication is general in nature and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.