Vocal football fans sued for defamation left sick as a parrot

It’s tough being a football fan. Even the most level headed of us can end up feeling upset, frustrated and annoyed at what is happening at our club. Owners that seemingly only care about making money, managers who insist on picking the wrong players and lazy over priced prima donnas can make our blood boil.

By John Flint,commercial litigation partner, Linder Myers.

For generations fans have voiced their opinions on clubs, managers and their players freely from the relative anonymity of the terraces on match days, without fear of recrimination or challenge. Today, we have virtual terraces on social media where every fan can make their views heard on twitter, facebook or through fan forums or chat rooms. For many, this has provided a wonderful platform to interact with fellow supporters. But the permanency of the virtual terrace creates a new legal threat and potentially poses real problems for fans who want to voice their opinions and stick their heads above the stands.

Blackpool FC has had a horrible season. Rooted to the foot of the championship, their fans have been particularly vocal in their attacks on the Oyston family who own it, particularly on social media. In response, the Oyston family have recently launched a series of high court defamation actions against the worst offenders, which have led to a number of public apologies and retractions.

What is perhaps surprising is that many fans seem surprised that their tweets, comments or posts have landed them in legal hot water.

A fan can be sued for defamation by making a false statement of fact which may damage the reputation of an individual or the club. Even if the information posted is a true statement, the fan will bare the responsibility (and cost) as the owner of the online account to prove its truth, which can mean incurring substantial legal fees until you reach court.

What may be news to many fans, however, is that opinions can be taken by law as statements of fact and viewed as being defamatory. The courts look at the context in which the statement is made, and whether it is asserting a provable fact – merely labeling something as “my view” for example is no defence.

This is particularly problematic when the fan is directing his or her comments against the owners or directors of a club as they are likely to be particularly sensitive about preserving their business and personal reputations. To claim that the owners are thieves or criminals (or worse) is clearly defamatory and no fan ought to be surprised to receive demands for them to be taken down or retracted. But some fans may be surprised to learn that comments such as “in my view the owners are driving the club into the ground” or “the owners are only acting for their own personal gain” are also likely to be defamatory.

Many fans may also think that they are safe if they use pseudonyms. However, this offers no protection - twitter or facebook for example can be forced, by the courts, to give up their identity to the club.

At the end of the day, football fans may have to accept that they need to behave differently on the virtual terraces than they would if they were shouting their views from the terraces at the ground. The online fan must learn to moderate comments about the club or its owners in particular or face the real risk of ending up in a whole heap of legal trouble.

As the versatile two footed italian midfielder (and occasional poet) Horace is credited with saying, "The written word remains. The spoken word takes wing and cannot be recalled." Although some fans may be able to score first against the club online, once the club decides to take action there is probably only ever one winner.