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Butt v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2017] EWHC 2619 (QB)

Case date: 20/10/2017

Court: High Court

Area/s of law: Defamation

Barrister/s: Aidan Eardley

 

Background

The Claimant is the Chief Editor of Islam 21C, a website which describes itself as “articulating Islam in the 21st Century”. He describes himself as holding conservative religious views, but not extremist views, and has spoken at a number of universities. 

In September 2015, the Defendant published a Press Release announcing new guidance aimed at tackling the radicalisation of students in universities and colleges. The Press Release named the Claimant, and said he was one of a list of speakers at universities who were “on record as expressing views contrary to British values”. 

The Claimant brought proceedings for libel, and for breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 and Human Rights Act 1998. He contended that the Press Release meant that he was “an extremist hate speaker who legitimises terrorism, is likely to radicalise students and from whose poisonous and pernicious influence students should be protected”. 

The Defendant contended that the Press Release meant only that the Claimant “is someone who has expressed views contrary to British values”. The Defendant pleaded that the claim failed to satisfy the serious harm test under section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 and that, in any event, the words complained of were protected by a defence of honest opinion under section 3 of the 2013 Act. 

The assigned Master directed that there should be a trial of the following matters, as preliminary issues: 

Meaning; 

Whether the statement complained of was one of fact or opinion; 

If opinion, whether it had indicated, in general or specific terms, the basis of that opinion. 

Decision

At trial, Nicol J found that the words complained of meant that the “Claimant is an extremist hate speaker who legitimises terrorism and from whose pernicious and poisonous influence students should be protected”. 

Nicol J held that this was a statement of opinion and that the statement complained of indicated in general terms the basis of the opinion such that the Defendant had satisfied the first two conditions of the honest opinion defence. 

Reasoning 

Meaning

Nicol J applied the familiar principles for the ascertainment of meaning as set out in Jeynes v News Magazines Ltd [2008] EWCA Civ 130. 

The Claimant’s views were described as being “contrary to British values”; however, on reading the press release as a whole, a reader would understand that he was also being characterised as a hate speaker and extremist [31]. The reasonable reader would also infer that the Claimant was one of those who had promoted the ideas described as ‘poisonous and pernicious’ [32]. 

Fact or opinion?

The term “on the record” was a reference to the Claimant’s publicly stated views [35]. Applying Keays v Guardian Newspapers Ltd [2003] EWHC 1565 (QB), this was a factor which “may tend to weigh in favour of the words being regarded as comment” [19]. 

In the view of Nicol J, the conclusion that the words complained of were opinion was even clearer in the case of the wider meaning which the Claimant contended the words complained of bore. “[W]hether someone is a ’hate speaker’, an extremist, or someone from whose ideas students need protection are all necessarily matters of opinion” [35]. Accordingly, Nicol J found that the Press Release was commenting or expressing an opinion on the Claimant’s views and the requirement under section 3(2) of the 2013 Act was satisfied. 

Indication of the basis of the opinion

It was clear that the basis of the opinion was the Claimant’s publicly expressed views on social, religious, political or moral issues [39]. The reference to the Claimant’s publicly available views was brief, but “it was not necessary… for the press release to  say one or more of what the views of the Claimant were which were being criticised, which British values were transgressed, where the record was or what the record was” [39].  Applying the approach taken by the Supreme Court in Joseph v Spiller [2011] 1 AC 852, Nicol J concluded that the Press Release satisfied the requirement, under section 3(3) of the 2013 Act, that the statement must indicate, in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion. 

Aidan Eardley, instructed by the Government Legal Department, appeared for the Defendant.

 

 

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