Most netsurfers are content to point, click and jump their way across the Web. But some bolder individuals have created their own home pages. These vary greatly in content and quality. But almost all of them contain links to the home page author's personal selection of interesting, hot, cool or just plain peculiar sites.
Now probably the last thing an aspiring home page author wants to think about is potential liabilities for what is on the page. But amidst the excitement of publishing a home page a little caution is called for. Clearly, you should not include libellous material on the page itself. But, less obviously, you need to consider whether linking to another page could make you responsible for what is on that other page.
As yet there is no precedent that establishes for certain that this is the case. However, it is very likely that under English law you could be sued if you link to a libellous page.
If there is no precedent, why is this so? We have to search for some analogous case that suggests what a court might do when faced with a Web page. There is such a case. It was decided in 1894. It established that drawing attention to existing libellous material can constitute the necessary 'publication' to found liability for defamation.
That case concerned a Mr Hird, who lived in Worth, near Keighley. He obtained an injunction against two boilermakers nearby in the village, putting them out of business. Some people, including a Mr Wood, sought to arouse local sympathy for the boilermakers. A local gala provided an opportunity to raise a subscription. Someone (there was no evidence who) wrote a placard and put it up near the gateway leading to the gala. The placard referred to the boilermakers having been "ruined in their business and their living taken away by the animosity of one man". Mr Hird sued Mr Wood for libel.
It was proved that Mr Wood took up a position near the placard, sitting on a stool, smoking a pipe and continually pointing at the placard with his finger, thereby attracting to it the attention of all who passed by. He did this for a long time. The court held that this was evidence of publication, so that there was a case to answer.
The hypertext links of the Web provide a rather more sophisticated method of pointing at defamatory material. Yet the analogy with Mr Wood sitting on his stool, pointing at the placard, is clear. If you include a pointer to someone else's defamatory material on your Web page, you could be held to have published it and thus be exposed to libel proceedings.
The moral is: think before you link.