A popular school reunion website is facing legal threats after receiving complaints that it is being used to post defamatory allegations about teachers.
The National Association of Head Teachers has said that 12 of its members have complained about abusive comments being made about them on the popular Friends Reunited site, and have requested that action be taken to close it down.
The site is intended to provide a forum for the British public to catch up with old school friends.
Public forums provide website owners with difficult choices when it comes to censoring what can appear on a site they host, said John Salmon, lawyer at Masons law firm.
Previous cases have made it clear that if you review material prior to it appearing on a website, you will be considered as a publisher, he said. "You would then be legally responsible for any statements made," he said.
The current position may encourage firms not to review material before it appears online, but there is still a risk, said Salmon. "If you receive a complaint and do not take action, you can still be held to be liable," he said.
While the threat of legal action may persuade firms that allowing the public to post messages on their site is not worth the risk, others argue that message boards provide a valuable way to interact with customers.
Nottingham Forest Football Club used to run a message board on its website without moderating the content. A system of moderating the content was introduced after messages appeared online that the club could not appear to sanction, explained Geoff Peabody, Webmaster at the club.
"We spent a long time considering whether we wanted to open this can of worms. But we are trying to cater for what fans want, and the message board is a powerful way to communicate," he said.
The landmark case of Demon vs Godfrey in 1999 highlighted dangers for internet service providers that ran newsgroups, said Salmon. This resulted in Demon having to remove messages about Laurence Godfrey that were considered defamatory.
"It can be difficult to judge whether a statement is defamatory or not," Salmon said. "It is best to ensure that you have a policy for dealing with complaints."
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