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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Pell backs down on threat to sue Twitter/Deveny

See here. But it was only after Deveny removed the offending tweet. We should still be concerned about the way defamation law can be used by powerful people to silence criticism and satire.

Extract (with a snip, plus some minor editing for clarity):
Media law expert and author of Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued Mark Pearson said it was yet to be determined whether Twitter was responsible for the content published by its users.
... Mr Pearson said the case should serve as a warning to others who post similar material on social media.
"Any threat of defamation should send a wake up call to everybody using social media that they are now publishers and they come under the same laws as journalists and other publishers have been subject to for centuries," he said.
"Every one of these cases is a reminder that people should be cautious when they are tweeting or using social media and just because something is funny or satirical does not mean that it is safe.
"Particularly with Twitter, there are so few characters to play with, that it is very hard to both defame someone and to qualify for the defences that might be available."


Mike said...

It seems that the religious have more protections in their utterances. What is their position in Australian law?

Unknown said...

Good thing too. Julian Burnside offered to represent Deveny pro bono.

Russell Blackford said...

Their position is no different from anyone else, Mike. If somebody publicly accused a non-religious person of being a pedophile they could sue just as much as a religious person could. But the important thing to remember is that defamation law is less protective of speech that satirises public figures than is the case in the US.

As I said in the earlier post, I'm not even opposed to people being able to sue if they feel that they've been publicly characterised as pedophiles, though I'm sceptical that that was really the case here.

Mike said...

My question is more about the way that religious figures (clergy and lobbyists like Jim Wallace) characterise others. If they smear an entire group, can an individual sue them?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, that would be vilification rather than defamation. We do have vilification laws in Australia, though I'm not a huge fan of them. E.g. I thought the Catch the Fire Ministries case was a mess and should never have happened. I wouldn't want to see Jim Wallace sued for vilifying some group of people (like atheists or whatever), but nor would I want him to be able to sue for vilification if harsh things were said about evangelical Christians as a group.

I'm not a free speech absolutist, but I certainly am a minimalist when it comes to accepting restrictions on speech and expression.