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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).

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

More legal threats by #MTRsues (aimed at Jennifer Wilson)

This time with an even clearer threat to take defamation proceedings - and a totally over-the-top defence of doing so by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Really, I don't even care that much what #MTRsues' theological views might be. Why doesn't she just clarify them once and for all, and be done with it? I'm sure that any number of media outlets with far wider reach than Wilson's obscure blog would publish the clarification, and probably even pay a fee for it.

In any event, these legal threats are so heavy-handed as to be ridiculous. #MTRsues is a public figure, and it comes with the territory that she will find herself subjected to some robust criticism by various opponents, some of which might even be inaccurate. Whatever the truth about her theological views, and about how reticent or otherwise she has been about revealing them, she should not be using defamation law to chill public debate about such things as the motivations of high-profile political activists like herself.

Yes, we do need some basic defamation law in this country to ensure that individuals don't suffer social death from destructive lies - but this is not such a case. This is not, for example, a case where a public figure with ready access to the media has called someone else with less media access a plagiarist, say, or a pedophile, or a rape advocate. The balance of power between #MTRsues and Jennifer Wilson is totally in the other direction.

Even if #MTRsues technically has a case for defamation, her actions are destructive of freedom of speech, and she should abandon them. If she goes ahead, this could be a test case on the extent to which defamation law can be used to chill public debate in Australia - and if that happens, I hope that a public appeal will cover Wilson's legal costs.

And if #MTRsues is successful in court, by any chance, it will show that we seriously need to narrow the law of defamation to put a stop to these sorts of speech-chilling claims. It's time for a strong campaign to defend freedom of speech in Australia. We need a public figure test with real teeth, as in the United States, coupled with strengthening of the provisions for indemnity costs so as to deter actions relating to minor issues by public figures who have access to the media.

Defamation law should be a last resort for people with no other redress for highly damaging lies. It should not be an easy port of call for public figures who could easily clarify misconceptions that are unlikely to do them any real damage in any event.

1 comment:

Legal Eagle said...

:-( Heavy-handed or what?

Defamation law should be a last resort for people with no other redress for highly damaging lies. It should not be an easy port of call for public figures who could easily clarify misconceptions that are unlikely to do them any real damage in any event.

Totally agree.