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Byrne v Deane [1937] 1 KB 818

Libel; notice on club’s wall; words capable of defamatory meaning

(329 words)

Facts

The claimant was golf club member, while the defendants were the proprietors and the secretary of the club. By a rule of the club, members were asked not to put any notices or placards in the club’s premises without the secretary’s consent. In the meantime, the defendants had some automatic gambling machines on the premises for the exclusive use of club members. The presence of the gambling machines was notified to the police and the machines have consequently been removed. The day after the removal of the machines, somebody put a notice of the club’s wall containing the following typewritten verse: "For many years upon this spot/You heard the sound of a merry bell/Those who were rash and those who were not/Lost and made a spot of cash/But he who gave the game away/May he b[ur]n in hell and rue the day." The claimant brought a libel action, alleging that the defendant put up the notice that concerned him. He saw the verse as meaning that he had reported the machines to the police and was thus disloyal to other club members.

Issue

The trial judge found in favour of the claimant, stating that the words were defamatory and given the defendants’ complete control over the club’s walls, they could have easily removed the paper but refused to do so, thereby offering their approval. The defendants appealed.

Held

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s decision (albeit with one of the three judges dissenting). It held that the words of the verse could not constitute defamation. Merely alleging that someone started a proper procedure for preventing/suppressing crime (here, illegal gambling) could not prima facie be defamatory. Furthermore, Slesser LJ stated there was no evidence that any of the defendants – apart from the secretary – had anything to do with the verse’s publication. Greere LJ, dissenting, found that the verse was defamatory and that by leaving the verse on the wall, the defendants participated in the commission of libel.


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