Twitter opposes order sought by journalists in defamation case

Allison Morris and Aoife Moore sue over allegedly malicious posts by Eoghan Harris

Former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris: allegedly posted defamatroy tweets.  Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris: allegedly posted defamatroy tweets. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Twitter has argued that it should not be compelled to provide two journalists with all the details they seek regarding accounts that allegedly published malicious and defamatory posts about them.

The High Court heard that the social media giant has proposed an alternative order, which it says it will not oppose.

Reporters Allison Morris of the Belfast Telegraph and Aoife Moore of the Irish Examiner claim that the Twitter accounts in question posted highly defamatory statements about them.

Arising out of those tweets, posted between June 2020 and May 2021, they have brought High Court actions, including defamation proceedings, against Twitter International Company and the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris.

As well as seeking damages, the plaintiffs want an order known as a ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ order, requiring Twitter to make disclosure of the identities of persons, who controlled, used, contributors, curators and owners of several named twitter accounts, including the Barbara J Pym account@barbarapym2 and an account called Dolly White (@DollyWh72057454).

The information they seek includes IP addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and any other contact details of persons they claim are associated with those particular accounts. They also seek details of log-in times from when the posts complained of were published.

Burdensome

They also want Twitter to give the names and contact details of other Twitter account holders who they claim republished or retweeted any of the allegedly defamatory material posted by the Barbara J Pym and other allegedly linked accounts.

However, Twitter opposes their application on the grounds that the precise nature of the orders sought are burdensome, unnecessary and onerous.

Represented by Alan Keating Bl, Twitter says it does not wish to be involved in the main battle between the two reporters and Mr Harris.

However, it claims the orders sought would require Twitter to conduct an investigation into potential wrongdoing, which counsel argued that this goes beyond the scope of what a ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ order allows.

Counsel said that it has advanced an alternative order, containing a formula of words which it would neither oppose nor consent, regarding the disclosure of details concerning the accounts in question.

The two journalists claim that they have been the subject of many defamatory tweets published by the accounts to bring these proceedings in order to vindicate their good names and professional reputations.

Mr Harris denies the claims.

Strong cases

At the High Court on Wednesday, Thomas Hogan SC for the plaintiffs, who rejected Twitter’s arguments, said his clients had been the victims of a “malicious,” “campaign of defamation.”

His clients had established strong cases which merited the granting of the precise orders sought, counsel said.

Outlining the reasons behind the order sought, counsel said that it was believed that several persons may have either contributed to the accounts which posted the material about his clients or had retweeted.

His clients want to join any such persons to their defamation claims, counsel added. Counsel said Mr Harris had said in a sworn statement put before the court that he alone was behind the Barbara J Pym account, and that his wife Gwen Halley had control of the Dolly White account.

Counsel said this contradicted earlier statements and comments made in an interview with RTÉ radio by the former columnist earlier this year, when he said that other, unnamed persons had contributed to the account.

Counsel said that it seemed from statements made by Mr Harris in May that there was “sufficient evidence”, that others had contributors to what was published on Twitter.

Frank Callinan SC, appearing with Hugh McDowell Bl for Mr Harris, said his client’s response to the claims are “very clear” in his sworn statement that he was only person who controlled and posted on the Barbara J Pym account.

Counsel said his client was not objecting to any disclosure orders being sought against Twitter, but questioned to scope and nature of the relief the journalists were seeking.

Counsel said Mr Harris had sworn on oath that he is the person behind the Barbara JPym account and, while there were elements of contradiction of what was said in the RTÉ radio interview, his client could be cross-examined on that at the full trial of the actions.

The pretrial application came before Mr Justice Mark Sanfey.

Following the conclusion of submissions from all parties, the judge reserved his decision and said he would give judgment in the matter “as soon as possible.”