Social Media

News Sites are Liable for Defamatory Facebook Comments

Australia’s High Court has ruled that media companies in Australia can be held responsible for defamatory comments left on their social media pages by members of the public. The decision is part of a long-running defamation case that could have huge consequences for Australia’s media industry, forcing news sites to strictly moderate or remove comments on stories shared on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

David Rolph, a professor of law at the University of Sydney, said the ruling “may mean anyone who runs a social media page can theoretically be sued over disparaging comments posted by readers or random group members — even if you aren’t aware of the comment.”

The ruling (which can be read in full here) is part of a defamation lawsuit brought against a number of outlets, including The Australian and Sky News, by Australia’s Dylan Voller. Shocking photographs of Voller being restrained at a youth detention center went viral in 2016 and led to an inquest into the conditions at such centers.

Many news outlets covered the story and shared their articles on Facebook. In 2017, Voller sued three of these companies, arguing that comments left on their Facebook pages in reaction to these stories were defamatory, and that, by inviting these comments, the news outlets were legally their publishers.

It’s this second point which has proved particularly contentious, but a number of courts have found in favor of Voller’s argument. These include the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 2019 and the New South Wales Court of Appeal in 2020.

Although Voller’s case is not yet over, Australian media companies are extremely worried by the wider implications of the High Court’s ruling. The ruling may even effect individuals posting on personal social media pages, said Rolph in comments to The Sydney Morning Herald.

A spokesperson for Nine, one of the companies sued by Voller, said the decision “will have ramifications for what we can post on social media in the future.” Michael Miller, executive chairman at News Corp Australia, another firm targeted in the case, said the finding “highlights the need for urgent legislative reform” that will “bring Australian law into line with comparable western democracies.”

As Miller noted in comments reported by MediaWeek: “The decision by the High Court in the Voller case is significant for anyone who maintains a public social media page by finding they can be liable for comments posted by others on that page even when they are unaware of those comments.”

This latest ruling, a 5-2 decision by Australia’s High Court, seems to settle this particular element of the case, establishing that media companies are indeed the “publishers” of third-party Facebook comments and can be held legally responsible for their content. However, Voller still has to prove that the comments themselves were defamatory, while media companies can now marshal new defenses under defamation law.

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