The Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the approach taken by a first instance judge in using dictionary definitions as the starting point for interpreting the meaning of allegedly defamatory statements published on a social media platform. The court reiterated that meaning is to be determined according to how it would be understood by an “ordinary reasonable reader” having particular regard to the context in which the statement was made: Stocker v Stocker [2019] UKSC 17.

The Supreme Court held that the judge had erred in law by relying on the dictionary definition of the verb “to strangle” as dictating the meaning of a Facebook post containing that word and, in so doing, failing to conduct a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it. As noted in the Supreme Court’s judgment, the social media user is a new and modern class of reader. This decision gives welcome clarity to the approach to be taken in determining the meaning of statements made on social media platforms.

The Supreme Court also offered some obiter comments on the role of an appellate court in considering the meaning of allegedly defamatory words as found by a trial judge. In particular, it cautioned that an appellate court should exercise “disciplined restraint” when deciding whether to set aside the meaning reached by the trial judge.

Alan Watts and Neil Blake, partners, and Christopher Cox and Angela Liu, associates, in our London disputes team consider the decision further below.

Background

The factual background to the case is set out in our earlier post, which can be found here. In brief: the parties divorced acrimoniously in 2012, following which the appellant (Mrs Stocker) exchanged messages with Ms Bligh, the new partner of the respondent (Mr Stocker), via a series of posts on Ms Bligh’s Facebook page.

In the course of that exchange, Mrs Stocker made a number of statements concerning her former husband. The following statements formed the basis of Mr Stocker’s proceedings for defamation:

  1. that Mr Stocker had “tried to strangle” Mrs Stocker;
  2. that Mr Stocker had been removed from the house after he made a number of threats;
  3. that there were some “gun issues”; and
  4. that the police felt that Mr Stocker had broken the terms of a non-molestation order.

At first instance, Mr Justice Mitting found in favour of Mr Stocker. It was held that: a defamatory meaning could be inferred from these statements; they were published to third parties who read them on Ms Bligh’s Facebook page; and the defences relied on by Mrs Stocker (including justification under section 5 of the Defamation Act 2013) were not made out.

In ascertaining the meaning of the words complained of, Mr Justice Mitting referred to the definition of “strangle” in the Oxford English Dictionary. This provided two possible meanings: (a) to kill by external compression of the throat; and (b) to constrict the neck or throat painfully. The trial judge reasoned that the reference to “trying” to strangle precluded the second meaning, since the police had found handprints on Mrs Stocker’s neck which could only have been caused by the painful construction of her neck or throat. Therefore, the only possible meaning – by reason of the fact that Mrs Stocker was still alive – was that the statement meant Mr Stocker had tried to kill her. On this basis, the defence of justification was not made out.

The trial judge’s decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Decision

The Supreme Court held that the trial judge had fallen into legal error by using the dictionary definitions as, at the very least, the starting point for his analysis. In this regard, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s interpretation that the trial judge had merely used the dictionary definitions as a cross-check or confirmation of the correct approach.

The Supreme Court considered that the trial judge had impermissibly limited himself only to the two dictionary definitions of the word “strangle”. As a result, his approach had produced an anomalous result: had the statement simply read “he strangled me”, it would be taken to mean that he had constricted her neck or throat painfully, but because it said “he tried to strangle me”, it was taken to bear the more serious meaning that he had tried to kill her.

The proper approach, the Supreme Court confirmed, was to determine the meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement according to how it would be understood by the ordinary reasonable reader.

Context

The Supreme Court emphasised that context is “a factor of considerable importance”. The words complained of should not be fixed by technical, linguistically-precise dictionary definitions divorced from the context in which the statement was made. Nor should individual words be removed from their context and defined in isolation, before reconnecting them to the rest of the statement.

In this case, the Supreme Court considered it “critical” that the statement was a Facebook post. As a result, it should not be subject to elaborate or over-critical analysis because that is not the way in which such statements are made and read. An ordinary Facebook user would not have someone by their side breaking down their posts and pointing out all of their possible theoretical meanings. Instead, Facebook posts (and Twitter tweets) were a casual medium, “in the nature of conversation rather than carefully chosen expression”, where people scroll through quickly without pausing to reflect. Ultimately, a reader’s reaction to a Facebook post is “impressionistic and fleeting”.

Applying that approach to the determination of the statement in this case, the Supreme Court held that the correct meaning was that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the neck and applied force. On the basis of this meaning, it was also held that the defence of justification was available to Mrs Stocker.

Role of the appellate court

In substituting its own meaning for that of the trial judge, the Supreme Court was careful to emphasise that it was not merely giving precedence to its own view of meaning but rather that it was obliged to redetermine the issue in light of the legal error of the judge. However, the Supreme Court went on to provide guidance, obiter, on the proper role of the appellate court when asked to reconsider the meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement when there was no such error of law.

The starting point was that an appellate court should be slow to disturb a finding of a trial judge as to the meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement, principally because this is a finding of fact. As a general rule, it is well-established that an appellate court should not interfere with a finding of fact simply because it takes a different view of the matter. In the context of meaning, the Supreme Court advised an approach of “disciplined restraint”: if the meaning found by the trial judge falls within a reasonably available range, the appellate court should not interfere, but if the meaning falls outside the range of reasonably available alternatives then the appellate court may set it aside on that basis (without the need for qualifiers such as “plainly wrong” or “quite satisfied it is wrong”)

Comment

This decision is a reminder of the importance, in the words of the Supreme Court, of “stepping aside from a lawyerly analysis and inhabiting the world of the typical reader when considering the meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement”.

Whilst the legal principle is not new, it is helpful to see its application – in a detailed judgment from the highest court – in the context of social media, which is increasingly the battleground of the defamation lawyer. It is also a welcome reminder that the hypothetical reader of an allegedly defamatory statement should be considered not only to be a person who would read the publication but also who would react to it in a way reflecting the circumstances in which it was made.