Butt v Secretary of State for the Home Department

Reference: [2019] EWCA Civ 933

Court: Court of Appeal

Judge: Underhill LJ, Sharp LJ, Sir Rupert Jackson

Date of judgment: 6 Jun 2019

Summary: Defamation – meaning – honest opinion

Download: Download this judgment

Appearances: Aidan Eardley (Respondent) 

Instructing Solicitors: Government Legal Department

Facts

The Claimant is the Chief Editor of Islam 21C, a website which describes itself as “articulating Islam in the 21st Century”. He describes himself as holding conservative religious views, but not extremist views, and has spoken at a number of universities.

In September 2015, the Defendant published a Press Release announcing new guidance aimed at tackling the radicalisation of students in universities and colleges. The Press Release named the Claimant, and said he was one of a list of speakers at universities who were “on record as expressing views contrary to British values”.

The Claimant brought proceedings for libel, and for breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 and Human Rights Act 1998.

At a trial of preliminary issues in October 2017 Nicol J determined that the Press Release meant that the Claimant is “an extremist hate speaker who legitimises terrorism and from whose pernicious and poisonous influence students should be protected”.

Nicol J held that this was a statement of opinion and that the statement complained of indicated in general terms the basis of the opinion such that the Defendant had satisfied the first two conditions of the honest opinion defence.

Bean LJ granted the Claimant permission to appeal on the fact/opinion issue and directed that the Defendant’s application for permission to cross-appeal on the issue of meaning be dealt with at an oral hearing.

Issue

(1) Meaning; (2) whether the statement complained of was a statement of opinion or fact.

Held

Permission to appeal was refused on the issue of meaning. Sharp LJ regarded the Judge’s determination as unassailable. The Claimant’s appeal on the fact/opinion issue was refused. The Judge identified the correct principles and was right to find that, in its immediate and wider context, the statement about the Claimant was clearly an evaluative one. Sharp LJ said that the statement would still have been defensible as honest opinion even if, contrary to her view, it was to be regarded as an inferential one of fact, rather than an evaluative judgment.