In a recent Supreme Court decision earlier this year, Stocker –v- Stocker [2019] UKSC 17, the Court had to consider the meaning of words that had been written in a Facebook post (in 2012) by Mrs Stoker, namely “he tried to strangle me”. Those words resulted in a 76 month long libel dispute which had to resolve two simple questions namely:

  1. “what did those words mean?”; and
  2. “what was the correct way to find out the meaning”.

Mrs Stocker, the Defendant in the proceedings, had published a series of Facebook posts on the Facebook wall of her ex-husband’s new partner, Ms Bligh, about the Claimant, Mr Stocker. Defamation proceedings were commenced by Mr Stocker against Mrs Stocker when she published the words “he tried to strangle me”. Mr Stocker claimed that those words meant that he had tried to kill her. Mrs Stocker however denied that the words carried such a meaning and they simply meant that all he had done was to grasp her by the neck, inhibiting her breathing. The Court was therefore required to decide how the words that were complained of, would be conveyed to an ordinary reader of Facebook.

The first instance decision began with Mitting J, considering the Oxford English Dictionary and its two definitions of “strangle”. The conclusion he reached was that the reader could not have understood Mrs Stocker to be alleging that Mr Stocker had merely tried to “compress her neck”. He considered that the use of “tried” meant that her statement should be taken to mean only that he had compressed her neck painfully. On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld that decision, finding that Mitting J used his dictionary definitions solely as a “check” when considering the matter as a whole, albeit Sharp LJ held that the use of dictionaries does not form part of the process of determining the “natural and ordinary” meaning of words.

The Supreme Court subsequently granted permission for an appeal and in its unanimous decision, held that by relying on dictionary definitions, Mitting J had erred in his decision. It was held that he had erred by looking forth at the dictionary and using its definitions rather than looking at the whole wording used in context. Lord Kerr in his Judgment, implored Judges to “step aside from a lawyerly analysis”… “to inhabit to the world of a typical reader of a Facebook post”. He confirmed that there is a “new class of reader: the social media user” and in this respect, alongside the well-established “Man on the Clapham Omnibus” (which has long been used to consider what would be considered reasonable by a ‘reasonable man’) is now a speed-reading millennial offspring. This new entity scrolls quickly through social media and does not overanalyse. It should also be understood that Facebook is a casual medium in the nature of conversation, rather than carefully chosen expression. It was therefore held that Mitting J had failed to conduct a “realistic” exploration of how an ordinary reader of the post in question would have understood it. That reader would have realised that Mrs Stocker was alive to have posted the comment and “he or she would unquestionably have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the throat and applied force to her neck rather than that he had tried deliberately to kill her”.

Whilst the Supreme Court has now provided a guidance for the social media age, the decision does not mean that online allegations are now permitted and will never be questioned. Context is everything in relation to social media libel cases and whilst dictionaries are helpful, the Courts will now consider both the surrounding words and the medium used in order to review such cases.

For assistance in relation to defamation cases and all other Civil Litigation matters, please do not hesitate to contact our Civil Litigation Team [email protected].