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If I’ve been insulted on a website, can I sue?

Given that a lot of our day-to-day transactions involve the Internet, it’s not unusual to start a dialogue or even be the subject of a blog or news story.

What if you feel that what was said about you is wrong or insulting; could you sue?

Is the content written about you truly defamatory?

Courts have a high standard in finding someone guilty of defamation. Defamation is a communication that hurts a person’s reputation. Note: it’s not enough to just hurt a person’s feelings or insult them; the words must actually damage a person’s reputation.

If you were publicly insulted on a website in written form that could be considered libel, often referred to as cyber-libel, because it leaves a permanent record of the defamation.

However, you will have to prove to a court that you have been defamed on the website in order to be successful.

In order to rise to the level of defamation, what was written about you on the website would have to be false and malicious but this is not easy to prove. Again, not everything that you may consider insulting or hurtful to you is going to be seen as defamation, which is why a lawyer should be consulted as soon as possible to see if you have a case. Sometimes, if a letter is sent to the website asking to take the content down, they will comply.

You will have to prove the following in court:

  • The material published about you was defamatory;
  • The material published must have made reference to you (this means other people reading the website had to have realized it is you the website is talking about); and
  • The material was published for a person other than you, meaning the public.

What are the defences for defamation?

There are quite a few defences open to a person who is being sued for defamation:

  • Truth – even if what was written hurt your reputation if the website can prove it’s true, it’s a valid defence;
  • Absolute privilege – the freedom to speak freely in our justice or political systems, such as in parliament or court;
  • Qualified privilege – The party making the statements acted in good faith and without malice;
  • Fair comment – people are free to comment as long as:
    • It’s clear the statement is an opinion statement;
    • Based on facts that can be proven; and
    • Not made maliciously.
  • Responsible communication on matters of public interest – this is a new defence the court has allowed that says that journalists should be able to report statements and allegations, even if they are untrue, if there is public interest to do so.

The courts have an obligation to balance the right to free speech with the protection of a person’s reputation, which is why it’s sometimes hard to prove a defamation case.

Defamation cases are complex cases to bring in front of the court and can be costly and time consuming. You should consult a lawyer before going ahead with a defamation suit.

Read more:

Defamation: Libel and Slander

What is Cyber-Libel?