Is calling out “covidiots” worth the legal risk?
I am sure that everyone in the country has come across the term ‘covidiot’ since the start of the pandemic in March. The term has been coined to describe anyone who is not adhering to the Covid-19 related guidelines or laws – like those not adhering to the ‘rule of six’ or failing to wear a face mask in the supermarket.
It isn’t uncommon for newspapers to run campaigns where rule-breakers or law-breakers are shamed publicly for their non-compliance – those who drive whilst on their mobile phones and people who fly-tip are common examples. Such campaigns undeniably have a deterrent effect and attract a lot of readers and/or website traffic.
But as with all similar campaigns, photographing or naming and shaming ‘Covidiots’ has its risks – particularly in libel and breach of privacy.
From a privacy point of view, there is nothing stopping you taking a photograph of a ‘Covidiot’ and publishing it, as long as the subject did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” at the time the photo was taken. Generally, when people are out in public places (like the supermarket) there is no such expectation, but there could be if the subjects of the photos are out with their families or carrying out inherently private business (famously, like leaving a narcotics anonymous meeting).
Breach of privacy is an argument alleged ‘Covidiots’ will almost certainly try to use if they take issue with being shamed publicly, so you would need to be very sure that your ‘Covidiots’ weren’t photographed in circumstances where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Of course, public interest arguments can override a reasonable expectation of privacy – and ‘unmasking’ a ‘Covidiot’ might well provide enough clout to do so, but it is as yet a point that is untested in the courts.
Now, we come to the not-so-small issue of libel. The main problem with naming (or photographing) and shaming ‘Covidiots’ is that it is almost impossible to be sure that the rules or guidelines are actually being broken. For instance, it is possible that a group of more than 6 people are actually a large family living under one roof, or that the person shopping without a mask has a health condition which makes them exempt, even though they appear healthy. And this is where the main problem lies.
Just like the photo of someone allegedly driving whilst on their mobile phone could actually be a photo of someone scratching their ear whilst driving, it is entirely possible that some apparent ‘Covidiots’ are actually not doing anything wrong.
A false allegation that someone is breaking Covid-19 rules will be very likely to cause serious harm to their reputation (which is arguably the whole point of naming and shaming them), so doing so without being absolutely sure that there isn’t an innocent explanation is very high risk.
So, in short, be ‘Covidiot’ cautious!