Defamation on social media: Delhi High Court adopts the ‘Single Publication Rule’

Along with recent calls to decriminalize defamation (here) and to strengthen laws to deal with SLAPP suits, the Delhi High Court (Khawar Butt vs Asif Nazir Mir, Nov, 2013, Justice Vipin Sanghi) recently ruled on a case related to defamation on the internet. In a well researched judgement the court adopted the ‘Single Publication Rule’ and rejected the ‘Multiple Publication Rule’ for libel on the internet.

Multiple Publication Rule v. Single Publication Rule

Since defamation is an act of harming a persons reputation, an important ingredient of this offense is the requirement of ‘publication’ i.e. the communication of the defamatory matter to third persons. Therefore, the cause of action for defamation arises on the ‘date of publication’. The limitation period for defamation is one year, which also begins to run from the date the libel was published (Entry 75, Limitation Act).

The Multiple Publication Rule implies that a fresh cause of action arises for every moment the offending matter is left on a webpage. So, the ‘date of publication’ and the limitation period for the offense of libel lose significance. This rule was developed when circulation of printed material was limited and communities were themselves smaller. It was first propounded in England in the case of Duke of Brunswick v. Harmer, (1849). In this case, the Duke was given a copy of a newspaper that contained material that defamed him but had been published 17 years earlier. While upholding the claim for damages as being within limitation, the Court held that the limitation period of 6 years re-started when Duke viewed the publication. As a corollary, in the internet age, each ‘hit’ on a webpage containing the offending material will constitute a new publication and hence a new cause of action. This allows the aggrieved person to bring an action for a defamatory article even years after its initial publication – a burden for publishers in the age of mass distribution of information as each offending article would give rise to millions of causes of actions for an indefinite period of time.  This would result in a disproportionate interference with the freedom of press. In order to balance the rights of the victim without forcing publishers to face countless lawsuits for indefinite periods of time the Single Publication Rule was adopted.

Under the Single Publication Rule a person who claims to have been defamed has only one cause of action starting from the ‘date of publication’ till the limitation period expires. In 2013, the UK legislature enacted the Defamation Act, 2013 and the Single Publication Rule was introduced via Section 8. USA follows the Single Publication Rule which was developed in 1938 in respect of newspapers, in Wolfson v Syracuse Newspapers Inc. The court in this case rejected the Multiple Publication Rule as it observed that if this rule was used the period of limitation would never expire so long as a copy of the published material remained in stock and this would render the statutorily prescribed period of limitation otiose. In Ireland, the Multiple Publication Rule was abolished by the introduction of the Defamation Act, 2009. However, Australia and Canada still continue to follow the Multiple Publication Rule.

Facts and Ruling

The case before the Delhi High Court concerned defamation on Facebook. The plaintiff instituted a suit for damages of Rs. 1 crore and for a mandatory injunction against the defendants. The plaintiff submitted that the defendant No. 1 was in an adulterous relationship with his wife -defendant No. 2. That defendant No. 1 and 2 colluded to post false allegations about the plaintiff being in an illicit relationship with the wife of defendant No. 1. These allegations were posted on the Facebook page of Mrs. Shazia Bakshi (the wife of defendant no. 1).

The posts were published in 2008 but the plaintiff instituted the suit only in 2010.

After perusing various foreign cases and legislations, the court followed the Single Publication Rule and held that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by limitation (beyond one year from the publication of libel).

The Limitation Act clearly stipulates that the limitation period for libel is one year from when the libel was published. Therefore, the cause of action for libel starts from the ‘date of publication’. The Single Publication Rule, therefore, is in line with the legislative intent.

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