“A Historic Step Forward”: High Court Rules News Outlets Are Responsible For Defamatory Facebook Comments

Canberra, Australia - March 10, 2020: Ground-level external view of the High Court of Australia building, characterized by a large inscribed granite sign on the site

The High Court has ruled that news outlets are legally responsible for the comments left on their Facebook page.

The decision comes after Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller sued both News Corp and Nine for defamatory comments made on their Facebook page in 2018.

In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Voller, with a judge finding the publishers “provided the forum for its [defamtory comments] publication and encouraged, for its own commercial purposes, the publication of comments”.

The media companies had argued that an outlet must be aware of the relevant defamatory matter and intend to convey it in order to be liable.

They also maintained that the responsibility should fall on the individual who had left the defamatory comment.

Last year, the Court of Appeal again ruled the publishers were liable for the comments made on their respective Facebook pages.

Given the potential impact the decision could bring to publishers across the industry, a host of media outlets lodged a High Court appeal.

On Wednesday, a judge again dismissed the appeal, with a joint judgement ruling “the Court of Appeal was correct to hold that the acts of the [media outlets] in facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments by the third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments”, according to the Herald.

The court argued that simply by establishing a Facebook page and posting content, the outlets had facilitated, encouraged and assisted the publication of the defamtory comments.

Voller’s legal team has released a statement, underlining the importance of the decision in protecting individuals online in the future.

“This is a historic step forward in achieved justice for Dylan and also in protecting individuals, especially those who are in a vulnerable position, from being the subject of unmitigated social media mob attacks,” the statement said, according to ABC News.

“This decision put responsibility where it should be; on media companies with huge resources, to monitor public comments in circumstances where they know there is a strong likelihood of an individual being defamed.”

In response to the ruling, Nine has issued the following comment.

“Nine recognises the decision of the High Court which makes news businesses liable for any post made by the general public on their social media pages as the “publisher” of those comments. We are obviously disappointed with the outcome of that decision, as it will have ramifications for what we can post on social media in the future.  We are hopeful that Stage 2 of the Review of the Model Defamation Provisions will take account of the High Court’s decision and the consequences of that for publishers.

“We also note the positive steps which the likes of Facebook have taken since the Voller case first started which now allow publishers to switch off comments on stories.”




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