Extraordinarily, the English Supreme Court had to decide whether the words ‘he tried to strangle me’ used on a Facebook post by a woman regarding her ex-husband meant that ‘he tried to kill me’ and damaged his reputation, hence the defamation claim.

The lower court, after an analysis of dictionary meanings of the word ‘strangle’, found that the ordinary reader would have understood the word to mean that the ex-husband had attempted to kill her by strangulation and was defamed. It was not disputed that the man had grabbed the woman violently by the throat and had breached a non-molestation order.

The Supreme Court held that choosing a single immutable meaning from a series of words which are capable of bearing more than one meaning is artificial. The touchstone is what would the ordinary reasonable reader consider the words to mean.

It is the court’s duty to step aside from a lawyerly analysis and to inhabit the world of the typical reader of a Facebook post with particular consciousness of the social media context in which the statement was made. It is wrong to engage in an elaborate analysis of such a post. Facebook posts and Tweets are in the nature of conversation rather than carefully chosen expressions. The reader reads and passes on. People scroll through quickly and do not pause and reflect. Their reaction to a post is impressionistic and fleeting.

No-one reading the post would break it down by saying, well, ‘strangle’ means either killing someone or choking them to death or grasping them by the throat and, since the ex-wife was not dead, she must have meant by ‘tried to strangle me’ that her husband tried to kill her.

The claim of defamation failed.

The matter went through three courts. Each party was represented by a senior and junior advocate. It must have been a very expensive Facebook post.

South African courts are required always to look at words in their context and to have regard to the purpose of the words drafted or published.

The case is Stocker v Stocker.