The defamation case brought by Wings Over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell against Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale raised important questions about free speech.
After his defamation case against Kezia Dugdale was thrown out, the Wings Over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell wrote that “in almost every sense that the case was brought, we’ve actually won”.
And, indeed, the sheriff’s written judgement agreed with Campbell on two key points: that he “does not hold homophobic beliefs or feelings ... [and] has demonstrated by his conduct over many years that he supports equality for homosexual people” and that his tweet which sparked the dispute “was not motivated by homophobia and did not contain homophobic comments”. This will go a long way to healing the reputational damage he suffered as a result of the Labour MSP’s claim that the tweet – “Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner” – was homophobic.
However, the sheriff decided that even though Dugdale’s opinion was wrong, the comments she made were still “fair” and dismissed the blogger’s claim for damages of £25,000. “The law of defamation allows redress for damaging comments about character, but it also recognises that a balance must be struck with competing public values, such as free speech,” the judgment said. “It recognises that there is significant public interest in allowing people to freely express opinions without fear of legal penalty. Accordingly not every damaging comment about character will result in legal liability for harm or distress.”
This case may have attracted headlines partly because of the fame of the two people involved, but it also had broader implications. If the ruling had gone in Campbell’s favour and he had been awarded substantial damages, then it could have had a discouraging effect on the challenging of other public remarks that did actually cross the line in terms of homophobia or other forms of prejudice.
Despite strict laws of defamation in Scotland and the UK, there has always been considerable latitude in the political sphere. For example, after David Lammy recently compared the ERG Tory MPs to the Nazis, the group’s leader Jacob Rees-Mogg responded by saying he “feels sorry” for the Labour MP. Freedom of speech is a key part of any functioning democracy. If politicians and political commentators start suing one another, debates that need to be thrashed out may not be.