Threat of Internet libel recedes for institutions

February 23, 1996

The threat of universities being sued for defamatory comments put on the Internet by their students or employees has receded. Conversely, anyone libelled by a university's employee or student, using an Internet facility that the university hosts, may now find it harder to sue the university.

Some defamation suits against commercial Internet hosts have appeared around the world raising questions about universities' responsibilities.

Under the rule of tort, employers are liable for the acts of their employees if those acts happened during the course of their employment. However, the defamation Bill, which is about to reach its second reading in the House of Lords, may supersede this, according to media lawyer Nick Braithwaite.

The Bill says that the people who have primary responsibility for a defamation are its author, its editor and its publisher. It does not mention the employer. Mr Braithwaite said this could "let universities off the hook by closing off vicarious liability for defamation in a way that didn't exist before." He urged universities to get an open commitment from Parliament clarifying once and for all whether they have responsibility for what their academics write on the net.

The draft Bill defines publishers as commercial operations which should exclude universities. However, universities will still have to show that they took reasonable care to ensure that defamatory statements did not appear. For example, if a university was warned about a particular employee it would have a responsibility to investigate the warning.

The changes could make it more difficult for victims get redress. Suing the author is difficult because it can be hard to prove they actually wrote the message.

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