Suit over youth's online profile goes to trial

Suit over youth's online profile goes to trial
James Cook University student Lee Tong Lin last year posted on his Facebook page an unflattering profile of his classmate M. Jeevithan, but with a disclaimer that it was "entirely fictional" and "purely for entertainment purposes."

SINGAPORE - Was it just a prank on Facebook or did it amount to defamation?

This is the key question in a suit filed by a James Cook University (JCU) student seeking damages from a classmate for alleged defamation.

JCU undergraduate Lee Tong Lin, 24, had last year posted on his Facebook page an unflattering profile of classmate M. Jeevithan, 25, but with a disclaimer that it was "entirely fictional" and "purely for entertainment purposes".

Mr Jeevithan decided to sue Mr Lee, initially seeking $150,000 in damages. Mr Lee then applied to the court to strike out the suit.

His lawyer, Mr Terence Seah, argued that the disclaimer served as effective "antidote" to neutralise any possible "bane" in its publication. But in judgment grounds released last week, District Judge James Leong explained why he affirmed a deputy registrar's decision in August and ordered the case to go to trial.

He pointed out that there were disputes of fact, noting that both had different versions of how the publication came about and the circumstances that led to its removal.

"As to whether the disclaimer negates any potential defamatory meaning in the publication, that is, whether the antidote neutralised the bane... this was a matter best left for trial."

The extent to which the information had spread on Facebook was also something to be decided at trial, with help from expert evidence.

The profile was published in March last year and removed by Mr Lee three days later.

Mr Lee had argued that it was clearly an "innocent joke between students and classmates, one that (Mr Jeevithan) had participated in".

Three of his classmates provided supporting documents to say the profile was an extension of a classroom joke and discussion on criminal profiling during a forensic psychology class under their Bachelor of Science course in Psychology.

But Mr Jeevithan's lawyer, Mr Dilip Kumar, countered that his client had suffered distress and embarrassment and claimed his reputation had taken a beating.

Mr Jeevithan initially sought $150,000 in damages for defamation in a demand letter to Mr Lee, which the judge said was "clearly inflated".

But he noted that there was no sum mentioned in the actual suit filed, which meant damages were to be assessed if the defendant was liable.

The judge agreed with two past cases cited by Mr Lee that words said in jest were not defamatory. But these cases involved remarks made in a humorous article in an entertainment magazine and entertainment programme.

The issue in Mr Lee's case was more serious and not of the same category as the two cases cited, he said, pointing out that the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged defamation in each case "had to be looked at".

The judge said "it was not possible to conclude" that Mr Jeevithan's case, "weak as it may be, was obviously unsustainable, hopeless or doomed to failure".

Mr Lee's appeal to the High Court is due later this month.

This article was first published on October 18, 2014.
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