Defamation and Social Media

What is defamation?

Defamation can occur when a person writes something about another person or business that lowers the reputation of that person or business in the public’s eyes. Defamation can arise from direct comments about a person or a business, or from indirect comments, such as imputations.

A recent case in New South Wales has demonstrated the legal and financial liabilities that individuals and businesses face when posting on social media.

Mickle v Farley [2013] NSWDC 295

A New South Wales teacher has been awarded $105,000.00 as compensation for a former student of the school placing defamatory comments about her on social media sites Twitter and Facebook.

The comments were said to have a large effect on the teacher’s life, damaging her reputation and disrupting her working life.

Judge Elkaim awarded $85,000.00 in compensatory damages and a further $20,000.00 for aggravated damages. The aggravated damages stemmed from the student ignoring a letter from the teacher’s lawyers and not providing a sincere apology, evidenced by his attempts to argue the truth of the defamatory comments.

His Honour stated, in relation to defamatory publications on social media:

“They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication.”

What this means for you

This is a warning for individuals and businesses to realise that they are subject to defamation laws whilst publishing in an online environment. If a defamatory comment is published online by you or one of your employees, it must be removed swiftly to avoid any recourse for the action.

It is vital that small businesses have correct policies in place for their staff to follow when publishing on behalf of the business. When drafting a social media policy it may be useful to ensure that staff are also trained in recognising when a comment may be defamatory.

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