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Social Media Slip-ups Spur Contempt of Court Guidelines

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Among the general public there is often a misconception that the black letter of the law confers absolute rights upon individuals. Freedom of speech is commonly misconstrued in this way. The reality is that most laws exist to offer a degree of protection to particular rights or principles while balancing them with competing but equally legitimate rights.

Although such misconceptions are normally entirely innocent, in England it is well established that ignorance of the law is no defence. Therefore, it is up to individuals engaged in particular activities to be aware of both their rights and their responsibilities under the civil and criminal law to avoid coming a cropper.

Social media users in particular should take note as many legal pitfalls exist to snare the unwary and many of the unwary have already fallen prey.

Social Media and Freedom of Speech

A commonly cited example of clashing legal principles is the balancing of rights to free speech with the rights to protect individuals from intrusion into their private life.

Despite the idealistic imaginings of some early adopters, social media is far from being an unregulated wild west of free speech. As with any form of media, it is bound by a variety of existing laws such as defamation and those pertaining to the criminal justice system.

The fallout from the News of the World scandal shows just how treacherous excesses under one principle can become when they trample all over another.

The limits on free speech are therefore numerous and have always existed even in the context of social media but, as is often the case, it has simply taken some time for the law to catch up.

Understanding Social Media Legal Issues

On a day to day level these issues may seem a long way from the ordinary experiences of individual social media users. Previously it has only really been the concern of sophisticated organisations, such as newspapers and broadcasters, to stay abreast of the laws related to publishing and broadcasting and to avoid pushing their free speech rights too far.

However, the ability of social media and to give anyone with an internet connection a platform to broadcast to the world means that individuals are now being caught out unexpectedly. Without trained editors or in-house lawyers to hand, the unlucky ones have found out their legal responsibilities the hard way.

Attorney General Guidelines

While a civil legal claim related to social media excess can be very expensive for irresponsible users, as the House of Commons Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow recently found, a criminal claim can put someone behind bars. With that in mind, the Attorney General has issued guidelines to try and help educate members of the public and avoid them stumbling into contempt of court convictions.

The particular aim is to reduce the risk of live trials being prejudiced by those commenting on Twitter for example or to avoid breaches of victim anonymity for cases involving sexual offences. Recent mistakes in relation to such issues by the likes of Peaches Geldof have demonstrated the widespread ignorance of the law even among people in the media spotlight.

Businesses or individuals concerned about these issues should seek specialist advice; contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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