Hari's Corner

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Blogging in anger and its legal implications

Filed under: Internet and Blogging by Hari
Posted on Sat, Jun 6, 2009 at 09:34 IST (last updated: Sat, Jun 6, 2009 @ 15:05 IST)

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One of the few things that I steadfastly resist doing, in spite of extremely strong impulsive urges to do so from time to time, is blogging in anger. Whatever else I may be guilty of, I try to avoid expressing rage in public these days, because I know all too well how embarrassing it can be. Experience has taught me that a single outburst of anger can lead to a lot of awkwardness and unnecessary repair-work long after cooling off. It can also lead to a bruised ego and strained relationships with people who've been at the receiving end because you'll not only have to eat humble pie, you might have to compromise a lot more that way to undo the effects of that one burst of rage.

When you consider that mere spoken words can lead to all this, I am even more scared of the written (or permanently published) word. Words written in anger can be a lot more damaging, because they leave no room for doubt and are solid records of past unpleasantness. At least when you scream in rage, you have some room for explanation or slurring over the worst. It might be possible to pretend that a particularly damaging word you used was not genuinely intended. It doesn't create a physical, semi-permanent record of your actions (unless somebody's recording it in a video camera :P) and it can be forgotten over time. However, when you write angry words which the whole world can read, the embarrassment has the potential to recur over and over again, long after the event or its causes have expired. Because of the nature of the internet and the cache records created by search engine spiders, even if you delete your angry messages later, there's no absolute guarantee that it's disappeared forever. There is also a good chance that a lot more people have read your message before you have a chance to rescind hastily written statements.

The other big problem with writing in anger is that though the effects of the anger may be obvious and damagingly so, the actual justification for the anger might be blurry and often remain invisible to the reader. There is a great danger of even genuine anger being seen as unjustified and on account of trivialities. The emotions involved in written words aren't obvious to third parties and even something written carelessly might actually give the impression of being very rude and cynical.

I know I've written in anger in the past, but I have always tried to maintain some kind of sanity even when angry. I don't hit the "publish" button in haste. I go and re-edit any parts which I feel leave room for misunderstanding and confusion. I definitely remove swear words or words which convey the message in harsher terms than I intended. That's why I try not to address anybody in person when writing for public consumption. It always comes across as rude to send a private message through a public medium, no matter how polite the intent is.

Why do I write this? Because I feel that online rage is an ever-increasing phenomenon and people seem to believe that being behind a keyboard is an excellent excuse for writing irresponsibly and outrageously. It's bad enough to write something in anger. It seems far worse when done with deliberate intent and with no idea of rescinding them. Many bloggers seem to write stuff that would make for copybook criminal defamation proceedings if only they were found out by the affected parties involved. The whole "Freedom of Speech" issue has been way over-rated and considered to be an absolute defence to anything written or spoken, even if harmful in the long run to others. Nothing could be farther from the truth, legally and in my view, morally. The fact is, the only practical protection currently afforded by the internet is security by obscurity and, as everybody knows, it's a very poor kind of protection. As long as the record of written words is online, there is a chance of its detection and retrieval without too much effort.

Many bloggers might argue that 99% of the affected parties in such cases, wouldn't, or don't, bother to prosecute or take legal action. While there's a lot to be said for that, my point is why take the risk of exposing yourself, however slightly, by being on the wrong side of the law? At any given point of time, somebody might take legal proceedings if only to set an example to other bloggers and make a statement. In fact, there was a recent case where an Indian blogger was made to apologize publicly and rescind statements made online about a prominent journalist. The statements were allegedly defamatory. While I don't wish to discuss the merits of that particular case here, most likely this kind of action only proves my point about being extra careful about writing anything at all about specific persons in public. Legal proceedings, even when one is in the right, are expensive and wasteful, not to say unpleasant to the parties involved; especially to the weaker party. That's why so many people prefer to settle cases even when they have a strong defence to the claim. This is not to say that we need to freeze totally and steer clear of controversial topics or genuine and balanced criticism, but it's equally important to understand the legal implications of writing in public, the nature of defamation and what its legal implications are. No amount of screaming "Freedom of Speech" will help you in a Court of Law.

The reality is that, when online, the responsibility imposed on the individual writer is much much greater than people who write for newspapers, simply because the potential reach is far greater than localized newspapers and the avenues for damage arising out of defamatory writing is mind-boggling.

Disclaimer: I make no claim to be a legal expert or an authority on the laws of defamation though I am a Law Student. The observations made in this article are purely generalized observations and opinions based on my limited knowledge and understanding of the Law of Torts. Take legal advice from a qualified legal practitioner if you want specific and authoritative information.

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5 comment(s)

  1. So, do you it is more defamatory the "target" of criticism is a retired Judge rather than a normal person ? The words are not offensive but criticism about the person having not done their job properly (not as a Judge but as a member of some organisation). If you want specific example you can see it is something like this ( http://ow.ly/1G2mO ). Hope you can provide some analysis.

    Comment by Query (visitor) on Wed, Jun 23, 2010 @ 15:41 IST #
  2. Yes, defamation depends on the person targetted. Obviously the more important their position and the potential for damage caused by defamatory statements, the more serious the defamation.

    Without the full facts of the case I am unable to offer a specific opinion on this issue though. In general criticizing a judge is risky as it might involve contempt of court also, but I think that angle is involved in the case you linked above as the criticism was not targetted at his official capacity as a judge or his handling of any case.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Thu, Jun 24, 2010 @ 11:01 IST #
  3. Thanks for your analysis.

    It seems that defamation can also be used on a whistle blower as a means of harrassing them. In more democracy-oriented countries (example: in USA), anti-SLAPP laws and whistle blower protection laws are available as a protective mechanism.

    Also, if the parties are also competitors facing off in the same type of business, aren't there some anti-competitive behaviour laws that protect against abuse of courts/police in this kind of fashion ?


    Comment by Query (visitor) on Fri, Jun 25, 2010 @ 21:04 IST #
  4. Nobody can prevent anybody from harassing others. In theory the law is adequate to protect whistleblowers from being successfully sued for defamation but the actual reality might be different.

    Yes, if a company has the resources and means to employ the best legal talents they can foist cases at will against individuals and use the law as a tool or harrassment. The law must find a balance between the protecting the rights of the whistleblower and protecting the reputation of innocent targets of defamatory statements.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Fri, Jun 25, 2010 @ 22:32 IST #
  5. Interesting discussions.

    Please do visit the UK Libel Reform group's info site http://libelreform.org/index.php and perhaps share with others who might want to support UK Libel Reform by signing the petition:

    Comment by About UK Libel Reform Campaign (visitor) on Mon, Jun 28, 2010 @ 10:20 IST #

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