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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).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Melinda Tankard Reist threatens to sue No Place for Sheep

The Christian anti-porn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist has apparently threatened a defamation action or something of the kind against the blog No Place for Sheep (NPS).

NPS is the blog of Jennifer Wilson, an Australian academic, psychotherapist, and writer. It suggests that Ms Tankard Reist's threat relates to true claims that she is a Baptist who attends the church in Belconnen - what this really amounts to, I think, is that the blog suggests she is motivated in her anti-porn campaign by her adherence to a conservative Christian belief system.

There may be more to it than that. I don't claim to have researched all the claims made by the blog about Ms Tankard Reist. Perhaps some genuinely defamatory imputation can be found there somewhere ... or not.

In any event, she is a public figure and a forthright campaigner for her cause, one who makes plenty of robust statements of her own (I'm wording this carefully, as I'm not especially interested in being slapped with a letter of demand or a defamation suit myself).

I submit that legal threats by public figures that attempt to silence opponents' speech about matters relating to social and political policy are abusive of the court system. We need to reform defamation law to make it much harder for this kind of chilling action to take place. I suggest that it should be easier for courts to strike out intimidatory and facially unmeritorious claims by public figures at a very early stage - and that in such cases legal costs should automatically be assessed against the plaintiff on an indemnity basis. That would provide some real disincentive to one class of attempts to use the court system to stifle debate on matters of public interest. Come to think of it, this could be extended beyond defamation actions to cover other actions where freedom of speech is at stake. Policy should lean against the use of the civil courts to silence speech, unless the speech concerned meets some very tight criteria (I'm not going to propose them here, but it's something we can return to).

If Melinda Tankard Reist does go ahead and pursue any sort of legal action against No Place for Sheep - or anyone else whose speech she disapproves of - I expect that there will be some kind of appeal for money to cover the costs of defending the case, which could be very large (some of you will be aware of the Simon Singh case in the UK as an example of the sums that can be involved in defending unmeritorious defamation cases). At that stage, it would be worthwhile having a closer look at exactly what is involved. It's still early days, but this just could turn into a case where important freedoms are at stake and something needs to be done collectively to defend them.

I'll await developments, but please keep this one in the back of your minds.


rorschach said...

yes please, if you could.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, done.

Bubblecar said...

I've read a couple of MTR's articles and it seemed clear that she was basically a religious media troll, a conservative Christian wanting her religion to remain a hidden agenda while promoting its repressive "moral" teachings in the secular arena. These latest antics, if true, certainly reinforce this impression. If she really felt her religious beliefs had been misrepresented on the NPFS blog, she could have replied to Jennifer pointing out the errors, but instead she's apparently responded by trying to stifle public discussion and criticism of her beliefs, so she can continue posing as a secular "feminist".

noplaceforsheep said...

Thanks for this post. I received a letter of demand that I remove everything on my blog pertaining to Tankard Reist otherwise I will be subjected to a libel and defamation action. Money is also demanded for her legal costs to date.

Cheers, Jennifer.

Clyde said...

I agree with this post. The courts are not the place to sort out issues of public/social policy. The hard work must in the majority be done by ordinary citizens until it gets to a point where legislation needs to be enacted/a politician needs to weigh into the debate. We don't need anymore grubby lawyers than we already have ready and willing to sue just to fill their pockets.

I listen to /read MTR's take on things but don't have anytime for them.
Maybe she should do the same instead of upping the ante with a "tanty" when she feels she isn't getting her way?

Any respect I had for the woman is now in the shitter!

brown jane said...

It was in the fourth year of my apprenticeship to Joe, and it was a Saturday night. There was a group assembled round the fire at the Three Jolly Bargemen, attentive to Mr. Wopsle as he read the newspaper aloud. Of that group I was one.
A highly popular murder had been committed, and Mr. Wopsle was imbrued in blood to the eyebrows. He gloated over every abhorrent adjective in the description, and identified himself with every witness at the Inquest. He faintly moaned, "I am done for," as the victim, and he barbarously bellowed, "I'll serve you out," as the murderer. He gave the medical testimony, in pointed imitation of our local practitioner; and he piped and shook, as the aged turnpike-keeper who had heard blows, to an extent so very paralytic as to suggest a doubt regarding the mental competency of that witness. The coroner, in Mr. Wopsle's hands, became Timon of Athens; the beadle, Coriolanus. He enjoyed himself thoroughly, and we all enjoyed ourselves, and were delightfully comfortable. In this cozy state of mind we came to the verdict Wilful Murder.
Then, and not sooner, I became aware of a strange gentleman leaning over the back of the settle opposite me, looking on. There was an expression of contempt on his face, and he bit the side of a great forefinger as he watched the group of faces.
"Well!" said the stranger to Mr. Wopsle, when the reading was done, "you have settled it all to your own satisfaction, I have no doubt?"
Everybody started and looked up, as if it were the murderer. He looked at everybody coldly and sarcastically.
"Guilty, of course?" said he. "Out with it. Come!"
"Sir," returned Mr. Wopsle, "without having the honour of your acquaintance, I do say Guilty." Upon this, we all took courage to unite in a confirmatory murmur.
"I know you do," said the stranger; "I knew you would. I told you so. But now I'll ask you a question. Do you know, or do you not know, that the law of England supposes every man to be innocent, until he is proved - proved - to be guilty?"
"Sir," Mr. Wopsle began to reply, "as an Englishman myself, I--"
"Come!" said the stranger, biting his forefinger at him. "Don't evade the question. Either you know it, or you don't know it. Which is it to be?"
He stood with his head on one side and himself on one side, in a bullying interrogative manner, and he threw his forefinger at Mr. Wopsle - as it were to mark him out - before biting it again.
"Now!" said he. "Do you know it, or don't you know it?"
"Certainly I know it," replied Mr. Wopsle.
"Certainly you know it. Then why didn't you say so at first? Now, I'll ask you another question;" taking possession of Mr. Wopsle, as if he had a right to him. "Do you know that none of these witnesses have yet been cross-examined?"
Mr. Wopsle was beginning, "I can only say--" when the stranger stopped him.

brown jane said...

"What? You won't answer the question, yes or no? Now, I'll try you again." Throwing his finger at him again. "Attend to me. Are you aware, or are you not aware, that none of these witnesses have yet been cross-examined? Come, I only want one word from you. Yes, or no?"
Mr. Wopsle hesitated, and we all began to conceive rather a poor opinion of him.
"Come!" said the stranger, "I'll help you. You don't deserve help, but I'll help you. Look at that paper you hold in your hand. What is it?"
"What is it?" repeated Mr. Wopsle, eyeing it, much at a loss.
"Is it," pursued the stranger in his most sarcastic and suspicious manner, "the printed paper you have just been reading from?"
"Undoubtedly. Now, turn to that paper, and tell me whether it distinctly states that the prisoner expressly said that his legal advisers instructed him altogether to reserve his defence?"
"I read that just now," Mr. Wopsle pleaded.
"Never mind what you read just now, sir; I don't ask you what you read just now. You may read the Lord's Prayer backwards, if you like - and, perhaps, have done it before to-day. Turn to the paper. No, no, no my friend; not to the top of the column; you know better than that; to the bottom, to the bottom." (We all began to think Mr. Wopsle full of subterfuge.) "Well? Have you found it?"
"Here it is," said Mr. Wopsle.
"Now, follow that passage with your eye, and tell me whether it distinctly states that the prisoner expressly said that he was instructed by his legal advisers wholly to reserve his defence? Come! Do you make that of it?"
Mr. Wopsle answered, "Those are not the exact words."
"Not the exact words!" repeated the gentleman, bitterly. "Is that the exact substance?"
"Yes," said Mr. Wopsle.
"Yes," repeated the stranger, looking round at the rest of the company with his right hand extended towards the witness, Wopsle. "And now I ask you what you say to the conscience of that man who, with that passage before his eyes, can lay his head upon his pillow after having pronounced a fellow-creature guilty, unheard?"
We all began to suspect that Mr. Wopsle was not the man we had thought him, and that he was beginning to be found out.
"And that same man, remember," pursued the gentleman, throwing his finger at Mr. Wopsle heavily; "that same man might be summoned as a juryman upon this very trial, and, having thus deeply committed himself, might return to the bosom of his family and lay his head upon his pillow, after deliberately swearing that he would well and truly try the issue joined between Our Sovereign Lord the King and the prisoner at the bar, and would a true verdict give according to the evidence, so help him God!"
We were all deeply persuaded that the unfortunate Wopsle had gone too far, and had better stop in his reckless career while there was yet time.