Libel lawyers plan new way to silence the internet trolls

Britain’s libel lawyer community are extremely excited about a radical judgement by a New Zealand judge which effectively has banned  a troublesome troll for mentioning again the name of the person she attacked on the internet for the rest of her life.

The decision has been highlighted on the Inforrm blog  (see http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/new-zealand-has-the-harassment-act-just-swallowed-the-law-of-defamation-steven-price ) as a radical, cheap way of  avoiding expensive libel actions.

As the Wellington barrister Steven Price puts it: “Why sue for defamation when you can get an injunction by showing that a publisher has harassed and distressed you instead? For one thing, you don’t need to worry about all those pesky defences such as truth and honest opinion.”

As the Inforrm blog says: “The case was brought by lawyer Madeleine Flannagan )who was repeatedly savaged online by Jacqui Sperling, a friend she fell out with. Sperling called her a liar, a perjurer, a prescription drug addict, a vexatious litigant, and a fraudster, and labelled her incompetent, abusive and “bonkers”. She also published private financial and medical details about Flannagan.”

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Jacqui Sperling

The case was undefended but the judge cited the New Zealand Harassment Act and ordered her to take down over 100 posts to be taken dow “unless and until the court permits reinstatement,”

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madeline flannagan

It also forbids her from directly or indirectly mentioning Flannagan or her family online for the rest of her life.

These rather drastic measures do effectively curb her  free speech – though they don’t apply to the printed word – she could still distribute leaflets across NZ attacking Ms Flannagan.

British interest is evidently combined by moves recommended by the Law Commission which want new take down orders to be enforced by judges  where false allegations cause considerable harm to an individual.

I must say Ms Sperling’s attacks do sound particularly  nasty. But one has to ask whether such a  harassment ruling could be used say by politicians or people under sustained  investigation for more legitimate reasons to get blogs taken down they don’t like. Or will it bring legal harassment tourism to New Zealand – if the blog happens to be read by people in Auckland or Wellington.

And will  it be effective? It is almost impossible to remove any copy made of a blog by someone else – so some of the damning blogs may still be there despite Judge David Harvey’s ruling. On the other hand it does serve as a warning to some nasty vicious trolls that they can be stopped without going to the libel courts.