There used to be a time when the only people who needed to bother about libel laws and reporting restrictions were journalists.
But as more of us turn to the keyboard to vent our anger or debate public affairs, it’s no longer just journalists who need to worry about a brush with the law over something we’ve written.
Because despite platforms of discussion changing – the law hasn’t. Well, not much.
Lots of us like to think of ourselves as journalists these days – journalism is, essentially, the spreading of information. From letting Facebook friends know about that weird kid from school who’s been in the dock, to blogging about the latest gaff made by a politician, we’re all contributing to the hothouse of online chatter.
But not everyone is aware of the dangers – and we need to do more about this.
I’ve only been a journalist for four years, but already I’ve seen countless people in the dock and even put behind bars because of something they’ve said online. We teach our children that no-one is above the law, and I feel that that should also apply to the way we all use social media.
Believe it or not, it’s not just internet trolls who find themselves in court for something they’ve said online – there are a multitude of reasons.
For instance, courts have the power to impose uncapped fines and up to a year in jail for anyone responsible for seriously jeopardising ongoing trials by writing something which could influence a jury’s decision.
It used to only be reporters that needed to worry about this. But anyone who feels compelled to write about an ongoing court case online should, too, if not more; the same law states that whether you intended to prejudice the trial or not is completely irrelevant.
In December last year, one woman was fined the equivalent of £175,000 for writing material online which led to a murder trial in Australia collapsing because her words were deemed able of prejudicing the jury’s decision. This is why the Examiner never puts stories about ongoing court cases on Facebook, a concept which many seem to have struggled to grasp.
The same goes for anyone who names the victims of sex offences, or anyone under the age of 18 involved in a case who has a legal right to anonymity.
Because, sadly, the law doesn’t care if John from Huddersfield thinks all his Twitter followers should know the name of the 15-year-old toe rag who’s been shoplifting from Tesco.
In 2012, nine people were fined for naming the alleged rape victim in the case of footballer Ched Evans. The conviction against Evans was later quashed, but all nine still had to pay £624 each.
And it’s not just court cases we need to worry about commenting on. Twitter users every day delight in reminding Katie Hopkins that the last time she wrote something libellous, it cost her £131,000.
If we are going to use the internet as our main bubble of discussion, we all have a responsibility.
The Government, too, should accept part of this responsibility. Children seem to be on Facebook the moment they depart from the womb these days, and a little space on the curriculum for what we can and can’t put on social media probably wouldn’t be the worst idea.