A senior academic in the field of politics and ethics, Dr Paul Blackledge, has been awarded £70,000 in damages by a High Court Judge after articles by an anonymous blogger appeared online that falsely accused him of having committed serious sexual offences.
The Court heard that posts had been published under the pseudonym ‘MeTooUCU’ – a reference to the #MeToo movement and the University and College Union (UCU). The articles contained false allegations relating to very serious criminal offences that were said to have been committed by Dr Blackledge, together with alleged bullying behaviour in his professional life. The blogger behind the articles emailed Dr Blackledge’s contacts with the allegations as part of what was described as a ‘vindictive and relentless’ campaign over the course of several months. In his Judgement, Mr Justice Saini stated that these allegations were ‘devastating’ to Dr Blackledge’s reputation, and noted that the allegations had caused torment and left Dr Blackledge barely able to sleep through worrying about what was being said about him online by the anonymous blogger.
The Court noted that the Defendant (who did not engage with the court process in any way) had used the anonymity of the internet and social media to hide; with the Judge noting that “the facts of this case are a striking example of how the internet and social media can be used to abuse and damage innocent individuals with apparent impunity”. The Court also found that the Defendant had cynically invoked the (important) #MeToo debate as part of their strategy to make entirely false allegations against Dr Blackledge.
In awarding damages of £70,000, the Judge stated that the purpose of the award of this substantial sum is intended to reflect and signal the total falsity of the allegations against the Claimant. The Judge also ordered that Google, which hosts BlogSpot (where the articles appeared) must take down the website that contains the articles.
The case is noteworthy because it is a signal to those hiding behind anonymity online that substantial awards can be made against them. Although in this case the damages award may be symbolic, given that the identity of the blogger remains for the time being unknown, there can be no doubt of the value of the damages award in providing vindication to Dr Blackledge’s reputation after a smear campaign that could otherwise have caused permanent harm to his reputation and career.