Is online abuse the criminal law equivalent of libel ?

by evolvedlegal on July 31, 2012

There have been some high profile instances recently of the authorities taking very seriously the growing issue of online abuse, the latest of which came yesterday with the disgraceful tweets sent to Tom Daley.

We suspect that like most people we agree that the action which is being taken, based on suspicion of malicious communications, is a worthwhile use of police resources but these recent high profile instances do perhaps raise a somewhat difficult issue.

Online abuse is not new, it has been going on for years, on a daily basis, on all sorts of social media websites and of course directly via smartphones. It is a scourge and it creates great damage and sometimes even costs lives through suicide. But is the recent action taken a case of one law for celebrities or sports people and another for the rest of us ? Is the situation similar to libel, which is a law which can only generally be used if you are lucky enough to have deep enough pockets to fund expensive and risky litigation ?

Or, is the principle right that celebrities and sports people should get extra protection on the basis this sets a precedent that those engaging in this despicable behaviour should know that severe action, a criminal record or even imprisonment may ensue ?

These are difficult issues – the law should protect everyone equally, not just the rich and famous. We fully understand the public policy decision to be seen to be taking action, but unless there are numerous more instances where normal members of the public, subjected to a  small number of disgusting messages, also results in prosecutions, we may face a situation where a potential abuser thinks to themselves “as long as I don’t abuse a celeb I will be ok”.

Given that online abuse is such a big issue, it is unlikely that the police will ever have the resources to go after every perpetrator. We are not saying that action should not be taken, we believe it should, but nor can we afford, as a society to have a situation where only celebrities are protected by the law.

What do you think ?

This post provided by James Swede, Senior Partner and head of property law at Darlingtons Solicitors.

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