Vulgar language used as a rebuke does not amount to defamation

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A recent failed defamation action in Circuit Court reinforced the long-held principle that mere vulgar abuse does not necessarily constitute defamation. The plaintiff in the case, a trainee dental nurse, claimed she was vilified when a Dublin bus driver called her a “f ** king skankhole” on a bus. The complainant argued that the word “skankhole” meant that she was a woman of bad character, promiscuous, dishonest, socially undesirable and a prostitute.

The incident occurred when the complainant, having boarded a Dublin bus, was told by the driver to get off the bus and pick up trash he said she had dropped . She claimed to have been embarrassed and refused to do so. After the bus driver gave her a ticket, he called her “af ** king skank”. When she finally got off the bus at her stop, he called her “f ** king skankhole”.

The court ruled that the bus driver uttered the impugned words and there was no doubt that the words could potentially be seriously defamatory of a particular woman. The bus driver’s lawyer argued that people use throw-away critical comments that are not meant to be defamatory in everyday situations. The bus driver got annoyed when the plaintiff refused to pick up the trash, but no reasonable person wanted to deduce the alleged meanings from the comments made.

The question before the court, noted Judge Raymond Groarke, president of the Circuit Court, was whether it would be reasonable for anyone to hear these words spoken in the particular context of the refusal to pick up the trash, to determine that the plaintiff was a person of low moral character. Dismissing the complainant’s request, the judge said it seemed like no half-intelligent person in Dublin, hearing the speech about not picking up the litter, would draw such a conclusion.

He noted that in the real world the words were used for the purposes of insult and offense and the words spoken by the bus driver were used as a reprimand. Although he praised the driver for criticizing the complainant for throwing out trash, the judge said the words should not have been spoken and made no order for costs against the complainant.


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