UKSC | Not wise to search a Facebook post for its theoretical or logically deducible meaning, defamation case filed on basis of such post dismissed

Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: “He tried to strangle me.” What would those words convey to an ordinary reasonable reader of a Facebook post? A bench of Lord Reed, Deputy President and Lord Kerr, Lady Black, Lord Briggs and Lord Kitchin considered the above-framed question while deciding an appeal in a case of defamation filed respondent-husband against the appellant, her former wife.

Ronald Stocker was the former husband of the appellant, Nicola Stocker. Their marriage ended in acrimony in 2012. Mr Stocker subsequently formed a relationship with Ms Deborah Bligh. On 23 December 2012, an exchange took place between Mrs Stocker and Ms Bligh on Facebook where Mrs Stocker informed Ms Bligh that Ronald had tried to strangle her. She also said that Ronald had been removed from the house following a number of threats that he had made; that there were some “gun issues”; and that the police felt that he had broken the terms of a non-molestation order. These statements and the allegation that Ronald had tried to strangle her were the basis on which Ronald took proceedings against her for defamation.  

Ronald claimed that the meaning to be given to the words “tried to strangle me” was that he had tried to kill her. Mrs Stocker denied that the words bore that meaning. The High Court, however, ruled in favour of Ronald. Thus, Mrs Stocker filed the present appeal. 

The Supreme Court did not agree with the approach of the trial Judge. The Supreme Court was of the view that his approach produced an obviously anomalous result. The phrase “he strangled me”, on his analysis entails a less serious accusation than the phrase “he tried to strangle me”. This was the consequence of confining the meaning of the words exclusively to dictionary definitions. According to the Supreme Court: “Where a statement has more than one plausible meaning, the question of whether defamation has occurred can only be answered by deciding which single meaning should be given to the statement”.

It was observed: “The primary role of the court is to focus on how the ordinary reasonable reader would construe the words. To fulfil this obligation, the court should be particularly conscious of the context in which a statement is made. The hypothetical reader should be considered to be a person who would read the publication”.

It was opined that the fact that this was a Facebook post is critical and it was necessary for the judge to keep in mind the way in which such postings are made and read. The Court said: “It is unwise to search a Facebook post for its theoretical or logically deducible meaning. The search for 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”.

It was held that through relying on the dictionary definitions, the trial Judge fell into legal error. As a consequence of this, he failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how an ordinary reader of the Facebook post would have understood it. As a result of this error of law, the decision on meaning could not stand and it was felt appropriate by the Supreme Court to determine the meaning of the post itself. In Court’s opinion, an ordinary reader of the post would have interpreted it as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck. 

In light of this, it was held that the defence of justification should succeed. Even if Mrs Stocker’s allegations were considered not to have been established to the letter, there was more than enough to demonstrate that that defence should not fail by reason only that the truth of every charge was not proved. [Stocker v. Stocker, [2019] 2 WLR 1033, dated 03-04-2019] 

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