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Press release: Academic pays nearly £50,000 in damages to colleague falsely touted online as a sex worker

Former UCL academic Dr Christopher Backhouse has paid US academic Dr Erica Smith £49,975 in damages to settle High Court privacy and harassment proceedings.

In a statement read in the High Court today before Mr Justice Nicklin, Dr Smith’s solicitor explained that between November 2020 and May 2021, Dr Smith was the victim of an anonymous campaign of serious harassment.  The campaign was multifaceted. She received death threats and numerous unsolicited requests for sex by text message; she was signed up to far-right groups and fetish groups; and had unwanted deliveries to her house, including adult diapers.  An attempt was made to deceive the police into sending an armed response team to her address.  Most seriously, colleagues and friends were followed by various Twitter accounts set up in Dr Smith’s name. From these accounts, an individual claiming to be Dr Smith published pornographic images falsely purporting to be of her and false information concerning her sex life.  The Twitter accounts published Dr Smith’s actual telephone number and encouraged members of the public to contact her for sex and to send her intimate images – which they did.

John Doe proceedings in the US against Twitter and Google linked the Twitter accounts with an IP address in London.  Following Norwich Pharmacal proceedings in the UK against BT, Dr Backhouse was identified as the customer associated with the IP address.  Dr Smith and Dr Backhouse had previously worked together on an international collaborative research project with the company Fermilab.

In August 2021, Dr Smith instructed Brett Wilson LLP to write to Dr Backhouse asserting claims for libel, misuse of private information, harassment and breach of data protection legislation.  Solicitors for Dr Backhouse responded on his behalf, but failed to either admit or deny responsibility for the campaign.  Accordingly, in December 2021 proceedings were issued in the King’s Bench Division of the High Court.  Dr Backhouse filed a Defence denying liability for the harassment.

The matter was settled in August 2022 with Dr Backhouse agreeing to pay Dr Smith substantial damages and legal costs, and providing an undertaking to the Court not to engage in the conduct complained of.


Dr Smith was represented in the UK by Iain Wilson, Adham Harker and Percy Preston and Ben Hamer of 5RB, and in the US by Andrew Stebbins of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs.


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