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Global Freedom of Expression

Johnson v. Steele

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    October 29, 2014
  • Outcome
    Monetary Damages / Fines, Reparations made by individual or entity who exercised FoE
  • Case Number
    [2014] EWHC B24
  • Region & Country
    United Kingdom, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

Richard Johnson was awarded £70,000 in libel damages after Graham Steele launched a cyber bullying campaign against Johnson on Twitter and blogs. The court considered the gravity of the defamation allegation, as well as the publication’s scale.


Facts

Richard Johnson, the claimant, discovered the twitter account of Graham Steele, one of the defendants, as well as Steele’s two blogs. Through these online avenues, Steele had been making scurrilous and anonymous statements against Johnson. Steele was in a dispute with the Property Care Association, which Johnson had some to the defense of. Steele launched attacks against Johnson using two twitter accounts, and the attacks included at least 129 defamatory tweets from a single account. The claimant’s counsel characterized Steele’s behavior as “cyber bullying.”


Decision Overview

In assessing damages for defamation, the court must consider the allegation’s gravity, as well as the publication’s scale. The court noted that Steele acted so as to maximum damages to Johnson’s reputation, while utilizing anonymity.   The court also noted that there has not been an apology from Steele or any sort of mitigation. Therefore, the court feels it’s appropriate to provide aggravated damages as part of the overall compensatory reward, rather than as a separate award.

The claimant has some of the sites in the United Kingdom suspended because they were defamatory publications. Soon after, Steele had “copycat mirror site” set up in the United States two days after the UK sites were suspended. The court interpreted Steele’s actions to mean that Steele felt he was beyond the reach of the UK’s laws.

The court also mentioned that Steele did not attempt to defend against these allegations, nor did he attempt to justify his actions. Steele only presented a quasi defense by stating that he was not responsible for the publication, which was later proven to be untrue. The court was also concerned with Steele’s hiding and destruction of computers. Despite warnings from the court, Steele hid computers, including two in his daughter’s shed.

Additionally, Steele made false allegations that led the police to arrest Johnson. Though the matter was dropped, the arrest was distressing to Johnson and his family. Given the various acts by Steele and the scale of his wrongdoing, the court awarded Johnson £70,000 for aggravated and compensatory damages. The court stated that it would later decide the terms of the injunction.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The case reiterates that freedom of expression is not absolute and that malicious defamatory acts will be punished.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • UK, Hayward v. Thompson, [1982] 1 Q.B. 47

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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