Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
The Delhi High Court adopted a single publication rule in reviewing a case about a defamatory comment posted on Facebook. The appeal was brought by Khawar Butt, the plaintiff, who instituted the suit to claim damages and a mandatory injunction against Asif Nazir Mir and others for defamation. Butt argued that the publication of the post on Facebook gave rise to a continuous cause of action because it amounted to a fresh publication every time the allegedly defamatory content remained on the website. The Court found that if presence of alleged defamatory material on a website would suffice to give a continuous cause of action, then the purpose of the law of limitation would be defeated.
Khawar Butt, the plaintiff, instituted the suit to claim damages and a mandatory injunction against Asif Nazir Mir and others for defamation. Butt alleged that they published libelous content on a pamphlet and on Facebook about his being in an illicit relationship with Mir’s wife. The Facebook content was posted on either October 25, 2008, or October 27, 2008. The pamphlet was allegedly published on December 25, 2008. The suit was brought on February 11, 2010.
The issue is whether the suit is barred by limitation. According to Entry 75 of the Schedule to the Limitation Act, 1963, the limitation period in a suit to claim compensation for libel is one year from the date of publication of the libel. Butt argued that publication of the post on Facebook gave rise to a continuous cause of action because it amounted to a fresh publication every time the allegedly defamatory content remained on the website. He argued that this is warranted because of the unique nature of online content, where publication can be voluntarily withdrawn any time, unlike print media.
Vipin, Sanghi, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. The Court examined the two rules regarding limitation in defamation cases: the multiple publication rule (every time the allegedly defamatory material is published or republished, it creates a discrete actionable defamatory statement upon which one can sue) and the single publication rule (the limitation period begins at the time of the first publication of the allegedly defamatory material, even if content remains online or copies continue to be sold later). The Court noted that the U.K. (until recently), Australia, Canada, and Germany follow the multiple publication rule. On the other hand, the U.K. (present law), United States, and France follow the single publication rule.
The Court ruled in favor of adoption of the single publication rule because it is more appropriate and pragmatic. The law of limitation aims to bar the remedy beyond the prescribed period. If mere presence of alleged defamatory material on the website would suffice to give a continuous cause of action, then this policy behind the law of limitation would be defeated. However, if there is republication of the material, with a view to reach a different or larger public audience, it would give rise to a fresh cause of action.
Based on the facts of this case and application of the law of limitation, the limitation period for this suit expired on December 25, 2009. Butt filed the suit after this period. Therefore, limitation barred the suit.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This is the first case to decide on the applicability of single or multiple publication rule in India. By deciding in favor of the single publication rule, it prevents the threat of a defamation action that may be filed almost indefinitely.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
High Court decisions are binding on courts within the jurisdiction of that High Court.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.