Being a sports professional and the use of social media now goes hand in hand. Wayne Rooney has 14.6m, LeBron James has 36.6m and Cristiano Ronaldo has a staggering 52.9m Twitter followers.
Social media is invaluable for profile and for raising personal brand; it allows instant engagement with fans and presents plenty of commercial opportunities for those with significant followings.
What remains slightly unknown by users is this: just as you could defame someone, (cause reputational damage) by making statements in a press conference or in an article, defamation laws also apply to statements you make on Twitter.
Tweeters voice political, social and personal opinions, often at the quick touch of a smart phone button. It is therefore unsurprising that claims are brought against tweeters, particularly against those with high profiles and those in the public eye.
Katie Hopkins, well known and controversial British columnist, serves up a reminder of this proposition in a very recent case that she lost in the High Court.
Mr Justice Warby ruled that Hopkins libelled food blogger Jack Monroe in a tweet that wrongly accused her of vandalising war memorials.
Hopkins wrote: “Scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?”
She had actually meant to direct the abuse to New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who had said she didn’t “have a problem” with seeing graffiti on a memorial to women of the Second World War, which read: “F*** Tory scum”.
Interestingly, shortly after the tweet Monroe offered Hopkins the chance to apologise and make a £5,000 donation to a charity, or face legal action. However Hopkins refused and lost the libel case when it came before the High Court.
The MailOnline columnist also sought to challenge the High Court’s initial ruling by way of appeal. Mr Justice Warby said that he had no jurisdiction at such a late stage to deal with the application for permission to appeal over the damages awarded. He added that none of the four grounds for appeal had "a real prospect of success".
Hopkins was therefore ordered to pay Monroe a hefty £131,000 in court costs and damages.
Practical tips & a reminder of the law
Hopkins had claimed that Twitter was just the “Wild West” where anything goes. In reality, the judge has shown that there is no such thing and on a practical note users should be cautious rather than foot loose and fancy free on this platform as claims will no doubt rise in today’s digital era.
As a user of Twitter, it is important to have an overview of the law of defamation. The main legislation is set out in the Defamation Act 2013, which came into effect in England and Wales on 1 January 2014.
The law allows individuals, companies or firms to sue for damage to their reputation caused by published material that makes defamatory comments. There is no single definition of ‘defamatory’. Generally speaking, when tweeting, you should remember that something is defamatory if it:
Lowers an individual in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public;
Causes them to be shunned or avoided;
Disparages them in their office, trade or profession; and/or
- Exposes them to hatred, ridicule or contempt.
Under the Defamation Act 2013 claimants have to show that the publication has caused, or is likely to cause, ‘serious harm’ to their reputation.
You also risk defaming someone if you repeat defamatory comments previously made or published by others, for example, by retweeting defamatory material. Be careful with your retweets!
What about your rights to tweet? Well, firstly, the truth: it is a complete defence to a claim in libel if you can show that the tweet is substantially true. Secondly, honest opinion: it is a defence to a defamation claim if you can show that your tweet was a statement of opinion; that the statement complained of indicated the basis of that opinion; and that an honest person could have held the opinion based on fact which existed at the time the statement was made.
However, it goes without saying, you should be mindful of the fact that your tweets could be actionable. Think before you tweet and ask yourself “how might my followers interpret this?”
Your tweets should be consistent with your brand, image and comply with your commercial and contractual obligations, especially if like most sports professionals you have a public image as a role model. Before you tweet think, “would my employer, regulatory body or sponsor approve of this?”
Even if you resolve a dispute over a defamatory tweet, you could face backlash from your club, employer, sponsor or regulatory body who may take disciplinary action or retract deals if your tweets are seriously defamatory; do not harm your brand and commercial arrangements by your use of social media.
Do not tweet when angry, emotional, in the heat of the moment, or under the influence. Undoubtedly, you will live to regret tweets sent out under these circumstances and even when quickly deleted, they are almost always documented as a screen shot by an avid reader.
Make the most of Twitter, use it to your advantage and be engaging with your followers, but avoid the common pitfalls before publishing those 140 characters, it could be costly.
If you want to learn more about defamation and reputation management, don't forget to read our two-part Reevaldo series on this topic.
The sports team at Mills & Reeve have extensive experience in advising both claimants and defendants in sports defamation cases and also in advising top athletes and sporting organisations on reputation management, particularly where they have faced adverse or intrusive media coverage in newspapers, national television, online publications, and on social media. If you require assistance in reputation management as a result of media comments made by, or against you, please do not hesitate to contact Carol Couse or Rachael Somerset.