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BBC Settles Libel Suit, But Twitter Users May Be Next Target

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on November 27, 2012 4:55 AM

The BBC may not be alone in dealing with a libel case after allegedly defamatory statements were made about British politician Alistair McAlpine: Twitter users may be on the hook too.

Last month, the BBC broadcast a news story that erroneously linked McAlpine, a former member of Britain's House of Lords, to a child sex abuse case. While the report didn't mention him specifically, it gave enough details that others were able to identify him.

But it quickly became clear that the story was untrue, and the BBC settled a libel claim with McAlpine. Still, the case is poised to change libel law, at least in the UK.

McAlpine and his legal team are now threatening legal action against Twitter users who tweeted defamatory statements relating to the false news report.

Under current British law, libel standards are the same no matter whom the statements are about, according to Businessweek. That means there's no exception for statements made about public figures.

More importantly, it means that the publishers' honest beliefs that the statement was true is not necessarily a defense. That could be a problem for the people who retweeted the story.

But it may also be an opportunity to alter the law.

While a lawsuit against Twitter users for repeating libel may seem unusual, that could be because Twitter is such a new medium. If McAlpine does file suit, it may give the courts an opportunity to incorporate social media into existing laws about libel.

Many of the Twitter users who retweeted the story did it because they heard it elsewhere and had reason to believe it was true, reports Reuters. While spreading gossip isn't the best use of time, that doesn't necessarily mean it should be punishable under the law.

The case would likely be a non-issue under U.S. law, since McAlpine is a public figure and the retweeters arguably thought the statements were true.

Still, the outcome of this disagreement could provide some interesting insight on how similar legal systems are dealing with the impact of social media on the law.

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