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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On the need for defamation law reform

There is a narrow area where the law should protect the reputations of individuals from lies that could ruin their careers or lead to their social ostracism. This is based on the fact that human beings are essentially social animals. If an individual's good reputation in the society where she lives, and on which she depends economically and psychologically, is destroyed, that is a significant injury. Arguably, this should extend to true revelations to the public about individuals' private lives: the mass media can be experienced as intrusive and powerful organisations, capable of oppressing individual citizens, no matter how wealthy or prominent.

All this conceded, the law of defamation in its current form is absurdly overprotective. Beyond the narrow areas where it is legitimate to protect individuals from social ostracism or the unfair destruction of careers, robust public debate should be permitted. This includes the acceptance of harsh criticism and satire - especially when these are aimed at the policies and public activities (not the private lives) of public officials and candidates for public office.

It should go without saying, I hope, that it also includes criticism of ideas, doctrines, institutions, etc., though of course there can be some grey areas, as when a particular individual is closely associated with the policies adopted by an institution.

If you support restoring some balance in the UK jurisdiction - which affects us all, as we can all be sued there if our material is published in the UK - maybe start by having a look here. Then think about signing the associated petition.

You might then want to consider free speech activism in your own jurisdiction. Free speech is under attack from many sides, and there is a shortage of strong, articulate advocates on its behalf.

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