University sues sacked lecturer for libel

Article published: Thursday, December 16th 2010

The University of Salford is suing a former lecturer for allegedly publishing a satirical publication in what he describes as an attempt to “silence opposition” to its policies. The action could have serious implications for bloggers using WordPress, after the Californian webhosting company passed on personally-identifying information.

Dr Gary Duke

As reported by the Salford Star, Dr Gary Duke was sacked by the University of Salford (UoS) in August 2009. This was for distributing a satirical imitation of an official publication from the university’s Vice Chancellor, called Vice Consul’s Newsletter, which was brought out at a time when senior management was proposing 150 job losses as part of a £12.5m cuts drive.

The spoof newsletter was critical of the then large pay packet of the Vice Chancellor, which was over £200,000 in salary and pension contributions. It also documented what was described as “bullying, harassment and nepotism” at the university, specifically in relation to appointments. Duke neither denies nor confirms authorship of the content. Nevertheless last July he was banned from attending his PhD graduation ceremony for “bringing the University into disrepute.”

“I think the University is terrified of public scrutiny. [This is] a bullying tactic and designed to instil fear and silence any vocal opposition to their policies. These people are paid from the public purse and the debt of students. They should be accountable for every penny they spend and for how they manage the University,” Duke told MULE.

A University of Salford spokesperson said they would not comment while the case is ongoing.

Duke is pursuing an action against UoS for unfair dismissal, which is due to be heard at the employment tribunal next March. Yet despite the large costs incurred his trade union – the University and College Union (UCU) – are not providing him with legal representation. The UoS branch of UCU declined to comment when contacted by MULE.

Duke has also been denied access to crucial documents which he says are central to his case. Two months ago he was ejected from a UCU meeting which was discussing the findings of an external report which looked into allegations of improper practice in the appointments process of Salford Business School. This report has not been made public despite Freedom of Information requests made to the university.

At the same time the university is taking a libel action against Duke on the grounds that he defamed the character of several members of the senior management, including the Vice Chancellor, through a blog called ratcatchersofthesewer. Duke neither confirms nor denies involvement with the blog. However he maintains that the University’s targeting of him is “legal bullying”, which is being used to force him to drop his employment claim.

In the latest twist UoS lawyers applied pressure on an American website-hosting company to release details leading to the identification of the blogger who published the material.

The California-based web company Automattic, which owns blog host WordPress, duly handed over extensive lists of IP addresses of people who had visited the blog, including the user who set it up. At the next hearing on December 21 UoS lawyers are to request the court grant an order requiring the internet service provider to hand over account details associated to the IP addresses – thereby effectively identifying users of the blog.

from lindacy on flickr

Duke told MULE that he believes the decision could come into conflict with American Constitution, which affords robust protection of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The jarring conflict between English law and the standards of protection afforded to writers in the US have been described by John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship, who has stated: “There are US States who view English libel law as so damaging to free speech they have passed laws to effectively block the decisions of English judges.”

The case highlights the so-called ‘chilling effect’ of English libel laws on free expression. Libel is defined as making a false statement of fact that injures a person’s reputation through a form of communication which is permanent – in other words writing. However in English law the odds are stacked highly in favour of the claimant, with the usual burden of proof required by the court being reversed so that in effect a claim for defamation is presumed to be true unless the defendant can disprove it. In recent years there have been renewed calls for wholesale reform in order to properly balance the protection of reputation against the expression rights of writers.

Michael Pooler

Correction as of December 17: Automattic Inc. claim that they did not hand over a list of IP addresses voluntarily, but when compelled to by court order.

More: Education, News, Unions and workplace


  1. Excellent piece, explaining all the issues well. Obvious that you’ve put some proper work into it…

    Comment by Marc Hudson on December 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm
  2. Please see the correction at the bottom of the piece.

    Comment by Editor on December 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm
  3. I note your correction. However according to the statement provided to the Court on 22nd November 2010 by the barrister instructed by the University of Salford,it states unambiguously that the Claimant (UoS) received correspondence that confirmed that Automattic Inc (WordPress)were prepared to make a “voluntary disclosure” of the website’s creator. The CEO of Automattic Inc, Mr Toni Schneider, has provided a signed affidavit stating that he was prepared to produce ‘records’on the basis of a ‘Document Request’ served on them by the UoS legal representatives. However this ‘Document Request’ was authorised by a UK court and carried no authority in the US nor indeed in the jurisdiction of California. WordPress lawyers would have known this to be the case. It is inconceivable that Mr Schneider would not have known this to be the case. What I find truly astonishing is that WordPress did not appear question the sheer extensiveness of the UoS request for information within this ‘Document request’. Subsequently, according to the documentation, Mr Schneider produced to the UoS lawyers not only the IP address used to set up the Rat Catchers account, but also an extensive list of IP addresses presumably including the IP addresses of anyone who posted to this blog. Whatever Automattic Inc and Mr Schneider claim, this is in my opinion, a clear breach of privacy and has far reaching implications for all bloggers who have an account with WordPress.

    Comment by Dr Gary Paul Duke on December 17, 2010 at 5:27 pm
  4. How much money has Salford University wasted on legal fees at a time when they are making people redundant and their funding is being cut? Obviously those in charge have too little brains but mega sized egos and should not be in any form of employment.

    Comment by Patrick Sudlow on December 20, 2010 at 8:28 pm
  5. […] has been handing over IP addresses of UK bloggers with little legal pressure. See the cases of University of Salford […]

    Pingback by Hosted blogging for philanthropic aims | Clearer Channel blogs on December 30, 2010 at 9:48 pm
  6. […] has been handing over IP addresses of UK bloggers due to legal pressure. See the cases of University of Salford and the Bristol […]

    Pingback by Hosted blogging – Stop censorship – Upgragde the Struggle | Clearer Channel on December 31, 2010 at 2:24 pm
  7. […] list of IP addresses in order to identify the author of a blog entitled ratcatchersofthesewer, which allegedly defamed members of staff at the University. This would allow them to proceed with a libel […]

    Pingback by Anonymity over for Wordpress bloggers?  —   MULE on January 8, 2011 at 3:33 pm
  8. Dr Duke needs some accurate advice on libel law. The case against him is likely to be an abuse of process.

    Comment by Barry Turner on January 10, 2011 at 11:28 am

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