It appears that the "victim" went after the chat site host (Yahoo) too, but given their base in the US, this was not pursued.
Is this the end of freedom of expression on the Internet?
Full article pasted below:
Source: Guardian Unlimited
Expert warns of more chatroom libel awards
Wednesday March 22, 2006
A landmark legal ruling ordering a woman to pay £10,000 in damages for defamatory comments posted on an internet chatroom site could trigger a rush of similar lawsuits, a leading libel lawyer warned today.Michael Smith, a Ukip activist who stood for the Portsmouth North seat last year, became the first person to win damages yesterday after being accused of being a "sex offender" and "racist blogger" on a Yahoo! discussion site.
Mr Smith, 53, from Fareham in Hampshire, sued Tracy Williams, of Oldham, for comments posted after she joined a rightwing online forum in 2002.
Judge Alistair MacDuff said in the high court that Ms Williams was "particularly abusive" and "her statements demonstrated that ... she had no intention of stopping her libellous and defamatory behaviour".
The judge ordered Ms Williams never again to repeat the "unfounded" defamatory remarks, which included calling Mr Smith a "nonce" and accusing him of sexual harassment.
Although ISPs have paid out for hosting defamatory comments, this case is thought to be the first time an individual has been found to have committed libel on a internet chat site.
"The obvious and immediate potential ramification is that there will be more cases like this," said Richard Shillito, a partner at the law firm Farrer & Co. "One sees on these sites particularly unrestrained comments that people make in the heat of the moment without thinking of the legal consequences.
"A lot of people post anonymously but it is possible to find out people's identity. I think people should read this judgment as a warning to be more careful about their comments."
Mr Smith, a chartered surveyor, said Ms Williams' initially "innocent enough" views hardened after they expressed vastly different opinions over the Iraq war. Together with another chatroom user, who settled for £12,500 out of court with Mr Smith, they began a campaign of words against him and his family.
"That is when it started getting out of control. I was called a lard brain and a sex offender and my wife was called a prostitute," Mr Smith said.
Believing he had been libelled, Mr Smith and his solicitors obtained a court order to force the telecommunications company NTL to hand over Ms Williams' personal details. When she failed to provide a defence, they obtained a summary judgment.
"I'm happy with the judge's ruling, but firms hosting online chat rooms should be prepared to get involved and step in to moderate defamatory statements. I considered suing Yahoo! but their discussion board is hosted in the US and falls outside UK law.
"I contacted them many times and all they suggested was that I talk directly with the moderator of the forum. It wasn't until a lot later that they agreed to remove the offending posts from the site.
"The best way forward would be to make it possible to sue for small amounts through the county courts. At the moment you end up in the high court and that makes it very expensive." The former Conservative party member said he agreed with the judge that the comments would have been seen only by a restrictive audience, probably just the 100 or so members of the discussion.
Despite using the name MikeUKPO53EX, the other debaters logged into the chat room could still discover his profile and details by clicking onto his name. Mr Smith said he would pursue Ms Williams for the damages and to recover his costs, bankrupting her if necessary.
The judge said Ms Williams must not repeat the defamatory remarks, or in any way suggest Mr Smith is a sexual offender, a sexual deviant, a Nazi or a racist or having any such tendencies.
In 2000, the internet service provider Demon agreed to pay Laurence Godfrey £15,000 plus legal costs after allegedly defamatory postings about him appeared in newsgroups.
Dr Godfrey alleged that the company failed to remove defamatory material. Demon argued the case could affect the entire ethos of free speech on the internet.
Yahoo! was not immediately able to comment.