#MeToo Blogger Ordered To Pay £70k Over Libellous Comment

Earlier this month, Professor Blackledge obtained a judgment in his favour against an anonymous Defendant. The judgment was obtained in the absence of a response to either the letter of claim or the issued proceedings and accordingly Professor Blackledge obtained judgment in default in respect of the claim he pursued in libel and harassment. He also pursued an application against Google requiring them to take the offending website down.

Mr Justice Saini summed up the background to the case based entirely on the Claimant’s evidence (due to no contrary position being set out by the Defendant) as follows:

  1. “…C is an academic. C does not know the identity of the Defendant (“D”).
  1. Between 1999 and 2017 C worked at Leeds Metropolitan University…teaching Politics. C has subsequently held positions in London South Bank University, Northumbria University and recently Shanxi University, China.
  1. Between 1999 and 2017 C was a member of the University and College Union (“UCU”). The UCU represents employees of universities and colleges across the UK. While at UCU, C was aligned with what in the evidence before me is described as the ‘UCU Left’, one of the two major factions within the UCU, and was a member of the SWP until he left voluntarily in August 2015.
  1. The website at the URL https://MeTooUCU.blogspot.com (“the Website”) is on BlogSpot (a free to use blogging platform hosted by Google LLC). There are three blog posts that have been posted on the Website by D which make seriously defamatory allegations about C:

(a) the First Article “An account of sexual assault in the UCU” (published on 8 February 2020);

(b) the Second Article “The Blackledge Web” (published on 15 February 2020);

(c) the Third Article “New light on MeTooUCU, involving evidence from within the SWP” (published on 28 April 2020).

  1. At the bottom of each article contact details are given in the form of an email address: MeTooUCU@protonmail.com. As is well known, ProtonMail is an end-to-end encrypted email service based in Switzerland.
  1. The Articles make gravely defamatory allegations to the effect that C is guilty of rape and sexual assaults, is a sexual predator and covered up his crimes and humiliated survivors of his abuse.
  1. Although it would be for D to establish truth and D has not participated, I am satisfied on the evidence that C has never committed any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. I also accept that he was devastated by these false allegations and finds the very idea of sexual violence abhorrent.
  1. C first heard of the Website when he received a call from Geoff Brown, a former regional officer in the UCU who told C he had been emailed a link to a blog post at the Website and that they alleged C was a rapist and had sexually assaulted women. Around the same time, C found the newly created anonymous Twitter account with the handle @MeTooUCU (“the Twitter Account”). It had “tweeted out” a link to the blog 27 times, each one tagging a different Twitter account stating, “Please read this account of sexual assault in the University and College Union UCU [Content warning] https://metooucu.blogspot.com“.
  1. On 15 February 2020, C conducted a Google search of his name and found the Second Article. C saw the Twitter Account tweeted a link to the Second Article on the same day stating, “Many of those who helped enable and defend a sexual predator remain in key elected positions in University and College Union (UCU) #MeToo #MeTooUCU”.
  1. On 28 April 2020, C searched for his name on Google and found the third article. C saw the Twitter Account tweeted a link to the Third Article again, tagging multiple Twitter accounts in separate messages….”

Mr Justice Saini’s summing up continued to set out a series of further incidents where the offender was relentless in his/her campaign against Professor Blackledge. Whilst Professor Blackledge’s innocence of the matters he was accused of is presumed until proven otherwise, the Judge was clear that he was of the view that Professor Blackledge had not committed any of the crimes he was accused of.

In awarding Professor Blackledge £70,000 in damages, the Judge took guidance from the case of Suttle v Walker [2019], which sets out the matters important to assessment. The Judge stated:

“I note that Nicklin J in that case took into account (inter alia) the following factors in assessing damages for harassment: (a) the fact that the defendant’s campaign was “clearly and deliberately targeted” at the Claimant; (b) the campaign was relentless over a period of three to four weeks; (c) it had a lasting effect on the claimant; (d) the use of a Facebook group was deliberately to recruit others to gang up on the claimant.”

The Judge further found it appropriate to grant an injunction against the Defendant, largely due to the Defendant’s unwillingness to identify him/herself.

Application against Google

As for the application pursued against Google, Section 13 of the Defamation Act 2013 states:

“(1) Where a court gives judgment for the claimant in an action for defamation the court may order—

(a) the operator of a website on which the defamatory statement is posted to remove the statement, or

(b) any person who was not the author, editor or publisher of the defamatory statement to stop distributing, selling or exhibiting material containing the statement…”

The Judge found the guidance set out in the case of Summerfield Browne Limited v Philip James Waymouth [2021] useful, which stated:

[39] Trustpilot is therefore the relevant ‘operator of a website’ for the purposes of s.13 DA 2013. By s.5 DA 2013, however, Trustpilot would, had it been named as a defendant, had recourse to the defence under s.5(2) that it was not itself the party that posted the defamatory statement. In my judgment liability having been determined against the Defendant, Trustpilot cannot be said to be exercising any right to self-expression such as to be protected by Article 10 ECHR. Accordingly, s.12 Defamation Act 2013 [see my comment below]does not apply to restrict the power of the Court to grant relief affecting Trustpilot, as the relief sought by the Claimant does not affect Trustpilot’s exercise of the Convention right to freedom of expression.

 [40] In the circumstances I will make a s.13 order requiring Trustpilot to remove the defamatory review, on the basis that the Defendant’s conduct to date makes it doubtful that he will comply with the injunctive relief the Claimant has been granted. As Trustpilot has not been present or represented at this hearing the order will contain a provision that it may apply to the Court for the order to be varied or discharged.”

The Judge, therefore, found that an order requiring Google to take down the offending website was “justified and wholly appropriate and made the appropriate order with provision for Google to apply to have it varied if they wished given that they were not present at the hearing.

Professor BlackledgeHow Nelsons can help

Kevin Modiri is a Partner in our expert Dispute Resolution team.

Should you have been affected by any articles or posts published online, please do not hesitate to contact Kevin or another member of the team in Derby, Leicester or Nottingham on 0800 024 1976 or via our online enquiry form for advice.