Defamation proceedings against a high-profile organisation have highlighted the ease with which defamation can be carried out – whether deliberate or inadvertent – when posting online.
The Coalition for Marriage campaign, one of the major groups petitioning for a ‘No’ in the current same-sex marriage debate, is being sued for defamation after the subject in a photo took offense at being labelled a ‘violent extremist’.
In the post, titled “Tonight, a test for the extremists of the ‘Yes’ Campaign”, which is dated 16 September 2017 and seen by My Business, a photo is used which features 26-year-old public servant Jill Moran holding a rainbow flag at a marriage equality rally.
“I felt sick to my stomach when I saw my photo on the Coalition for Marriage website, after a friend noticed the page and brought it to my attention,” Ms Moran said.
“I am a passionate supporter of marriage equality and I am proud to campaign publicly, but it is completely untrue and hurtful to paint me as violent or a political extremist.”
She added: “This was supposed to be a respectful campaign, but instead, the Coalition for Marriage has effectively accused me of violent bullying and extremist behaviour with absolutely no justification.”
Slater and Gordon defamation lawyer Phil Johnston, who is representing Ms Moran, said that linking individuals with comments that are incorrect and unsubstantiated is against the law.
“Identification for the purposes of establishing defamation can be either direct or indirect,” Mr Johnston said.
“Direct identification usually occurs when someone is specifically referred to by name, while indirect identification is based on knowledge of additional information that allows a person to be linked to the published material.
“The additional information in this case is Jill’s name and identity, which anyone who knows her has. In fact, she only found out about the article when a friend of hers read it, saw her photo and identified her as having been somehow involved.”
According to Mr Johnson, a written request to the Coalition for Marriage to remove the photo and issue an apology and correction have so far not been carried out.
“If a reasonable response is not received within 28 days from the letter (25 September 2017), we will be issuing defamation proceedings.”
Lawyers have noted the increasing prevalence of defamation actions against SMEs, particularly through comments made on social media. A major contributor is believed to be a lack of awareness about one’s responsibilities when publishing content online.
“The law considers material to be ‘published’ when it is communicated to someone other than the defamed person. ‘Publishing’ includes written comments, photos, videos and audio shared or posted on social media channels and/or websites, as well as in more traditional forms such as printed materials,” said Scott Dougall of Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers.
“In the digital age, it has never been more important for SMEs to clearly understand and recognise defamation, both to prevent claims against them and to identify potential claims against others.”