March 7, 2017
“Good name in man and woman … is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash … but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed” (Shakespeare)
Our laws of defamation are there to help you protect your good name from unlawful attack, and a recent High Court judgment about a defamatory Facebook post is a pertinent reminder of how this protection applies online as well as in the real world.
Neighbours, noisy chickens, smelly rabbits, and a “peeping tom” slur
- H and B are neighbours in a residential estate.
- They argued over complaints which H lodged with the Body Corporate over B’s noisy chickens. Later, when B replaced the chickens with rabbits, H complained about their smell.
- B retaliated by publishing a statement on Facebook starting a smear campaign against H, accusing him of being a peeping tom, “a perverse neighbour, an idiot and an ugly piece of shit”.
- This Facebook message, which identified H by name, mentioned his place of residence and had a photo of him, was accessed by B’s friends and “a hundred other people”.
- Having obtained a court interdict ordering B to retract her statement and remove his picture from Facebook, H then sued her for R1.3m. B did not defend the matter, and the Court had to decide on the basis of H’s story alone (a) whether H had indeed been defamed and (b) if so, what damages to award him.
- H told the Court that his reputation, good name and standing in the community had all been affected. He had suffered shock, trauma, sleeplessness and depression, and his constitutional rights to privacy and dignity were infringed as a result of the post, which had provoked reactions including –
- Insinuations of paedophilia and child molestation
- Posts from other Facebook users like “shoot the bastard in the face with a pellet gun, the ugly two faced jurk (sic)” and he was called a pervert, a “flippen gemors”, “a sick bleksem”, “a monster”, and “a disgusting piece of shit”
- Death threats, causing him to move to another residence on the estate (to no avail as it turned out, as B also moved, becoming his neighbour for the second time)
- “Suspicious looks” from other estate residents
- Loss of business clients (he ran a business in the estate).
Defamation being generally defined as ‘the unlawful, intentional, publication of defamatory matter (by words or conduct) referring to the Plaintiff, which causes his reputation to be impaired”, the Court held that H had indeed been defamed and was entitled to compensation by way of damages.
Taking all the circumstances of the matter into account, the Court awarded H an amount of R350,000 plus costs.