The Supreme Court has given a unanimous judgment in Stocker v Stocker, a libel claim brought by Mr Stocker against his ex-wife, Ms Stocker, who alleged on Facebook that he had "tried to strangle me". The High Court and the Court of Appeal had held that (when considering the "single right meaning" of those words in the context of defamation proceedings), ordinary readers would interpret the post as alleging that Mr Stocker had "tried to kill [her] by strangulation". The lower courts referred to dictionary definitions, and the Court of Appeal found that "tried to kill" was a "significant and distorting overstatement" of what had actually happened: common assault.
The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, finding that anyone reading the post would not interpret it in such a literal way. The ordinary reader would consider Mr Stocker's actions, including that he breached a non-molestation order and uttered threats to Ms Stocker, "sufficient to establish that he was a dangerous and disreputable man". In other words, Ms Stocker was able to defend her comments as true, without having to also demonstrate that Mr Stocker had actually intended to kill her.
The Supreme Court also noted the importance of context when determining meaning, particularly with social media posts, where people "do not pause and reflect", nor do they ponder possible meanings. "Their reaction to the post is impressionistic and fleeting."
Commenting on the judgment, Mishcon de Reya's Head of Reputation Protection, Emma Woollcott said: "The decision is a victory for common sense. When interacting on social media, people don't refer to dictionary definitions, nor engage in the same over-elaborate analysis of words that lawyers do."