Monday 22 January 2018

'Times' sorry over website comments

Psychiatrist wins apology over anonymous online claims

Patricia Casey took a case over comments on an ‘Irish Times’ article online. Photo: Dave Meehan
Patricia Casey took a case over comments on an ‘Irish Times’ article online. Photo: Dave Meehan

Dearbhail McDonald and Tim Healy

The 'Irish Times' has apologised before the High Court to psychiatrist Patricia Casey over material posted about her on the comments section of its website.

Professor Casey brought defamation proceedings over remarks made in July 2013 by individuals in relation to articles written by columnist Breda O'Brien and by psychiatrist Prof Brendan Kelly.

The offending remarks were posted by two anonymous members of the public beneath the articles, and were not part of the 'Irish Times' articles themselves.

Prof Casey, a columnist for the 'Irish Independent' said she hoped the settlement and apology would lead online editions of newspapers and other similar websites to think again about the sort of online comments they allowed.

"What was said could not be allowed to stand," she said, adding that it was a great pity it has taken so long to get to this point. "Defamatory comments would not be permitted to appear in the letters pages of newspapers, so why should they be allowed to appear in the comments sections of the online editions of those same newspapers?" she added.

As part of the settlement, an apology was read to the court by Cian Ferriter SC on behalf of the newspaper.

It stated: "In the summer of 2013, the 'Irish Times' published on its website a series of articles relating to the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill which, at that stage, was progressing though the Houses of the Oireachtas.

"In the comment section beneath the articles that were published on the 'Irish Times' website, two anonymous members of the public made comments stating that Professor Patricia Casey was an unprofessional psychiatrist who was unfit to treat suicidal pregnant women. The comments also asserted that Professor Casey misrepresented psychiatric research in order to promote a Catholic agenda.

"The 'Irish Times' accepts that the comments made about Professor Casey were untrue."

It also recognised she was "a psychiatrist of the highest integrity and professionalism" and apologised for the distress caused to her by the comments on the website.

No other details of the settlement were revealed in court.

In America, publishers are not legally responsible for material placed online by posters who comment.

However, in Ireland, both publishers and posters are liable for any material posted online.

Last night, one of Ireland's leading information technology and civil rights experts renewed calls for reform of Ireland's "chilling" defamation and IT laws.

Under the E-Commerce Directive, which regulates notice and "takedown" actions by service providers, businesses are obliged, on obtaining knowledge or awareness of illegal content, to act expeditiously to remove or to disable access to the content.

However, Dr TJ McIntyre from the Sutherland School of Law at University College Dublin said that the interpretation in Ireland of terms such as "awareness" were too vague. This ambiguity, combined with Ireland's defamation laws, had a "chilling effect" on service providers who faced major risks arising out of user-generated content, said the chairman of Digital Rights Ireland.

Earlier this week, the privacy advocacy group asked the High Court to make a referral to the EU's highest court for a ruling on whether Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner is truly independent under EU law.

"At a minimum, we need to have greater reform of the Defamation Act (2009) which has not led to reduced costs or awards," said Dr McIntyre.

"We also need to look at developing and implementing immunities and protections for websites whose owners rely on user-generated content".

Irish Independent

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