Repeat a horrible lie on Twitter, pay $25,000: is that fair?

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Twitter is a broadcast platform like radio or TV and if you use it irresponsibly, some believe you should pay a price. That’s why a U.K. man is paying £15,000 (about $25,000) after he retweeted a claim that wrongly identified a British lord as a child molester.

“From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting,” said Alan Davies, after paying up to settle a lawsuit after the lord accused Davies of defamation. The lord is also targeting about 20 more of the 10,000 or so people who tweeted or retweeted the false accusation.

So is Davies’ punishment fair? In some ways, yes: after all, how would you feel if hundreds of people tweeted you were a child molester? But on the other hand, the penalty is harsh. It only takes one click to retweet something, and Twitter is a spontaneous form of media — meaning that most regular Twitter users have probably retweeted misinformation at one point or another.

Davis may have shown bad judgment in retweeting something so serious (especially as the retweet came in response to a question he put to Twitter) but a full blown libel case seems excessive — and may have chilling effects on Twitter’s role as a news source.

The outcome would likely have been different in the United States, where free speech rights are much broader. Unfortunately, unlike in the U.K., American judges have yet to declare when a tweet is defamatory — and some lawyers have argued that everything on Twitter is just a form of opinion, which is not subject to defamation charges.

While singer Courtney Love has been sued repeatedly for using Twitter to call people thieves and prostitutes (leading her daughter to declare “Twitter should ban my mother“), the cases did not make it to trial. And, as yet, no one in America has tried to sue over a retweet.

The legal issues over repeating lies on Twitter are not just academic, and need to get cleared up sooner than later. The outcome will not only shape Twitter’s future as a broadcast platform, but will also help affect Tumblr, BuzzFeed and other sites where users can share a story — or a slander — with one click.

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