Discussion boards and libel

I run a website whereon there is a discussion board. I’ve mentioned this numerous times. Having been away from Kenya for 19 years now, the majority of the discussion that goes on there is meaningless to me – about current events that I have no context for understanding. Thus, as time goes on, I spend less time reading anything there, and when it intrudes on my life, I have yet less context for grasping what it’s about.

Yesterday morning, around 9am, I received angry email from an individual claiming to be a “Barrister & Solicitor” from Toronto, Ontario. I’ve received email from him before. He is always rude and threatening. He seems to think that it is his right and responsibility, as a lawyer, to be rude and threatening. He appears not to have heard the honey/vinegar maxim.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that he felt that he had been defamed on my site, and I was instructed to remove all articles defaming him, immediately, or he would “take action against you and your company.” He further demanded that I modify the software such that no article can ever again be posted containing his name.

I replied that I would look at the articles referenced, and make a judgment about them on an individual basis, to see if his claim had any merit, but that this was not my full-time job, and so it would take me some time to get to this. I further stated that I wouldn’t forbid the mention if his name. If he is, as he claims, a “Barrister & Solicitor”, then he is a public figure, and so discussion of his antics and character are fair game. I simply won’t get into the game of blocking this name or that name, and all mutations of it. It’s an endless task. Not going to go there.

Over the following 9 hours, I received 4 further messages from him, in greater degrees of threatening tones, demanding that I take immediate action.

So far, I have read roughly half of the articles he pointed to. One of them calls him a sheep. Not complimentary, but not libelous. Several of them say that he’s an idiot. Likewise, not complimentary, but not libel, as it expresses an opinion, and can’t be construed as a medical diagnosis of idiocy.

One of them states that he had charges brought against him of committing a certain act against a client. This one is a little more dicey. The poster (anonymous, and impossible for me to identify, for whatever that’s worth) didn’t claim that the charges were accurate, and did not make the charge themselves. They merely stated that such charges had been brought. If this is true, then it can’t be libelous. If it’s not true, then I think it might be, but I’m not at all certain. And since I have no way to verify its truth, I’m not quite sure what my actual legal obligation is, if any.

Several of the posts contain the full text of legal documents filed by this character in the court of Canada. These are, as far as I can tell, documents of public record. They certainly would be in the USA, which is, coincidentally, where I happen to reside and run my website. But Mr. Barrister claims that posting them constitutes violating lawyer/client confidentiality. Which, of course, makes me wonder how they got hold of these documents in the first place, if not from either the lawyer or the client.

The courts of the USA appear to have stated that, as a service provider, I am not responsible for the words of folks posting on my site. This is what I firmly believe. And, since I value free speech far more than I value the reputation of an exceedingly impolite “Barrister & Solicitor” from Toronto, it is my inclination to do nothing at all.

If he had asked politely for me to remove a posting which makes unfortunate and unsubstantiated allegations, I would likely have been more cooperative. I find his threatening stance to undermine his credibility.

So the question is, loyal reader, what, if any, legal responsibility I have to police my content, and whether I have any reason whatever to think that this quack’s claims have any merit whatever. I’m reasonably sure he’s full of beans, and thinks that by threatening me he can cover up for his complete lack of any grounds for his claims. This, in turn, makes me less cooperative. There is a nagging suspicion that I’m actually opening myself up for legal action, but he’s pulled these tactics in the past, and nothing has ever come of them, so it’s a pretty small and quiet suspicion.