Football fans risk libel actions for online guessing in rape case

A lawyer acting for a number of the Premiership football players alleged to have been involved in the rape of a 17-year-old schoolgirl is threatening to sue individuals who have joined in the online speculation concerning their identity.

So far, the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith has issued guidance to newspaper editors urging them to avoid “prejudicial reporting”, but gossip has spread like wildfire on the internet. A number of websites have closed down their message boards after they were inundated with fans speculating as to the identity of players accused of being involved in the rape, which is alleged to have taken place at the Grosvenor Hotel in Park Lane. But this has not stopped thousands of emails purporting to identify the eight players that are claimed to have taken part in the attack.

“Emails are like a chain letter, but one that goes out of control extremely quickly,” commented one solicitor acting for some of the players who have been caught up in the rumours. “Publishing in that fashion is exactly the same as publishing via a newspaper or other media, and there are exactly the same issues of confidentiality, privacy and defamation.”

The solicitor is known to act for a number of high-profile soccer clients and is remaining anonymous to avoid fuelling further rumours. “We’ve identified a number of individuals and placed them on notice as to claims,” he added. “It is not only individuals involved, but some businesses as well.”

As for websites, the solicitor said: “Host sites both in this country and abroad have been extremely cooperative and shown a lot of responsibility in self-regulation”.

Nevertheless, the threat of legal action against websites has prompted the internet industry to call for clarification of its responsibility under the E-Commerce Directive. “Internet service providers (ISPs) are mere conduits, carriers of information somewhat like the postal service,” commented a spokesman for the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA). “An ISP is not a publisher and doesn’t have editorial control over content published on its servers by a third party.” According to the directive, ISPs should be liable for prosecution if they have “actual knowledge”. The ISPA is pushing the Government for “a definition and clarification” of the term.