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Legal responses to online abuse in sport

This step delves into legal responses to online abuse in sport.
A statue of Lady Justice holding a scale, symbolising fairness and impartiality in the legal system.
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This step delves into legal responses to online abuse in sport, covering a range of harmful behaviours including hate speech, cyberbullying, trolling, threats, doxxing, and stalking.

In Week 1 we introduced you to the concept of online abuse, why online abuse occurs in sport and some of the impacts that online abuse can have on individuals and society.

This week we will be considering some of the legal responses to online abuse and the complexities that make online abuse a challenging area to regulate.

We use the term ‘online abuse’ to encompass any harmful behaviours, including but not limited to hate speech, cyberbullying, trolling, threatening, doxxing and stalking, that take place in digital spaces.

In recent years there have been a number of high profile legal cases taken in relation to online abuse in sport. For example, following the 2023 Rugby World Cup, World Rugby announced they were taking legal action after officials and players suffered online abuse during the tournament. They flagged more than 1,600 abusive accounts and have had their first successful prosecution for online hate in Australia, with further cases pending in South Africa, France, New Zealand and the UK.1 .

Legal responses to online abuse vary by country and depend on the type of abuse that has occurred. In this course, we will distinguish between criminal, civil and administrative law, when each response is applicable, some of the different types of offences that are committed, and the penalties for each.


Why is jurisdiction important?

As the laws are enacted by a legislature, jurisdiction is an important concept. In simple terms, jurisdiction is the legal authority granted to a court or legal body to hear and decide cases, apply laws, and enforce legal judgments within a specific geographic area or over certain types of legal matters. This authority can be determined by factors such as the location where a crime was committed, the residence or nationality of the accused, the nature of the offence, and the specific legal provisions governing the scope of legal actions for different courts or legal entities. The global nature of the Internet poses significant challenges for the jurisdiction and enforcement of laws against online abuse and hate speech. Legal responses often depend on the ability of national jurisdictions to reach and penalise individuals or entities that are located in other countries and operate across borders.

When applying laws, criminal or otherwise, typically legislators and the courts seek to balance the right to freedom of expression and individual rights to privacy and freedom from harm. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights expressly protects speech that offends, shocks, and disturbs. However such rights are not without limitations and need to be balanced with other rights. For example, it would be difficult to rely on Article 10 if someone’s online abuse had the goal of destroying or negatively impacting a person’s right to a private and family life, or to enjoy other rights free from discrimination. As such, proportionality is an important concept. The principle of proportionality holds that the severity of the legal response or punishment for a crime should be balanced with the seriousness of the offence and the harm caused or intended. Typically, only the most severe forms of online abuse are criminalised.

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Online Abuse in Sport

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