Email gossip could put firms in the dock

Companies have been warned they could face serious legal action if employees use corporate email to connect footballers to an alleged rape

Companies whose employees are speculating over email about the identity of the professional footballers who are alleged to have taken part in a gang rape in London last weekend could face legal action, experts have warned.

If an office worker has sent emails that name footballers that are rumoured to be involved, both they and their employer could be charged with defamation or contempt of court.

"If people are circulating names, then there is a risk of being sued for defamation," Struan Robertson, editor of -- part of international law firm Masons -- said on Friday.

"If they were using company systems, circulating names either internally or externally, then that company could also be liable. It [legal action] may or may not happen in this case, but it is a risk for companies," Robertson added.

According to reports, lawyers acting for some of the players who have been linked by rumour to the alleged attack are attempting to pursue individuals who have been distributing lists of names electronically.

One such individual is understood to have already been warned he could face a charge of libel and is said to have been suspended from work.

It was first reported on Monday that a 17-year-old girl had claimed she had been raped the previous Saturday at a London hotel, and that eight Premiership footballers were involved.

The UK media has not named those involved, for fear of attracting libel suits, but the Attorney General has received a complaint about a newspaper article that named a club that it claimed was at the centre of the allegations.

Speculation has been rife, though, and several UK Web sites closed down their Internet chatrooms after users posted the names of those they claimed were involved. Sites based overseas, though, have not taken this step.

Robertson explained that when high-profile individuals have been accused of a crime, a court order to suppress their names can be issued. Any newspaper that broke this order could face a contempt of court charge.

While newspaper publishers are generally aware of the existence of such a suppression order, the public are not.

By naming those allegedly involved in this incident by email, workers could put themselves and their employees at risk of being in contempt of court, a serious offence, even if the people they had named were to be convicted.

"It's a risk, and something companies should be aware of," Robertson advised.