Offensive social media post about Michelle O’Neill was not defamatory

Offensive social media post about Michelle O'Neill was not defamatory

An “offensive and misogynistic” social media post about Sinn Féin’s northern leader and first minister-designate Michelle O’Neill was not defamatory and the case “ought never have been brought”, Northern Ireland’s High Court has ruled.

Ms O’Neill launched legal proceedings in February 2022 in relation to an April 2021 post on Facebook by John Carson, then a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor in Mid and East Antrim.

No appearance was filed by Mr Carson to defend the writ and, as a result, Ms O’Neill obtained default judgment against him in December 2022. She subsequently applied for an assessment of damages.

In a 26-page judgment issued yesterday, Master Evan Bell described Mr Carson’s post as “classic misogynistic abuse… combined with that bravado and bombast often seen amongst football supporters, asserting that their team will beat the opponent”.

However, he said the post “was abusive and misogynistic but not defamatory” and therefore “no award of damages is payable to Ms O’Neill in respect of it”.

He also said it was “undesirable and not in the public interest” for the High Court to consider “disputes between politicians involving insults which one imagines are sometimes heard in school playgrounds or outside pubs on Saturday nights”.

Both parties were ordered to bear their own costs, which in Mr Carson’s case were said to amount to £12,697.

The master added that his decision “should not be interpreted to mean that Mr Carson has achieved a victory”, noting that he has “paid a very real price for his stupid and offensive remark”.

In particular, he said Mr Carson had lost his political career and reputation as well as “the respect of many, if not all, of the women in Northern Ireland”, and could lose his house if pursued for legal costs by his solicitor and counsel, which he cannot afford.

Master Bell said the “lesson to the public from this incident” was as follows:

“By all means use social media to post pictures of your children, grandchildren, holidays and pets. Share the wonderful or sorrowful experiences of your life with your friends. But if you start to comment on other people in an abusive and possibly defamatory way and they decide to take legal proceedings against you, you may end up losing your job, losing your house, and being made bankrupt. Everything you worked for can be lost because of a reckless comment made in a moment of anger.”

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