THE MAN WITH THE PIPE

Hird v Wood (1894) 38 SJ 234 (CA)

When simply pointing at a placard landed one man before the courts...

Facts: Messrs Smith and Kellett set up shop as boilermakers in the village of Worth, near Keighley and Leeds.  Mr Hird owned a row of cottages 50 yards away.  He obtained an injunction to stop the business, on the basis it was harmful to his property interests. 

A number of people, including Mr Wood, took steps to arouse sympathy in the community regarding the effective termination of Messrs Smith and Kellett’s business venture.

A gala was organised to raise donations, at which a placard was erected, which declared:

Subscriptions for Messrs. Smith & Kellett, late boiler makers of Worth Village, who have been ruined in their business and their living taken away by the animosity of one man.

It was unknown who had written the placard, but Mr Wood, the defendant, positioned himself near it.  He sat on a stool, smoked his pipe and “continually pointed at the placard with his finger, and thereby attracted the attention of all who passed by”.

Mr Hird complained that Mr Wood’s actions constituted a publication of a defamatory statement, and sued him.

Trial: The trial was heard before Baron Pollock and a jury.  The Judge, however, ruled that there was no evidence of publication, and directed a verdict for the defendant, Mr Wood.

Mr Hird applied to the Court of Appeal for a retrial on the basis that, although Mr Wood had said nothing, his “calling the attention of the public to the placard by continually pointing to it amounted to publication”.

Held: Lord Esher MR and Lopes and Davey LJJ held that there was, indeed, evidence of publication, which meant the Judge ought not to have preempted the jury.  Accordingly, the Court ordered a retrial.  

Comment: It is unclear how this case was resolved.  It was only reported in The Solicitors’ Journal – the English equivalent to New Zealand’s LawTalk – and does not appear to have been reported further.

References to this case abound the web, as a first principle regarding what may amount to publication in defamation law.  However, it is often assumed that Mr Wood was simply an innocent bystander, who knew nothing of the plaintiff.  Some reports even suggest Mr Wood did not know he was pointing at a sign.

Not so.  The original report makes clear that Mr Wood firmly sympathised with the boilermakers’ plight, and that he intended to draw people to the placard and gala for fundraising purposes.

It would appear the law in this case would still be regarded as applicable today.  In the online era, if you ratify or otherwise lend support to a defamatory statement on, say, Facebook, then, depending on what you say, you may be regarded as having taken part in the defamation.

It would seem the best lesson from this case is: you may be liable even though you didn’t write the defamatory publication; be mindful of what you expressly support, and how that support might be construed.  

Click here to download the original report of the judgment.