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High Court holds media liable for defamatory comments on Facebook

Australia’s highest court yesterday made a landmark decision, ruling that media outlets are responsible as “publishers” of allegedly defamatory comments posted by third parties on their official Facebook pages.

The full bench of the High Court, in a 5-2 majority decision, dismissed an argument by media organisations – Fairfax Media Publications, Nationwide News and Australian News Channel – that for people to be publishers, they must be aware of the defamatory content and intend to convey it.

The court found that, by facilitating and encouraging the comments, the companies had participated in their communication.

The decision opens the way for media organisations to be sued for defamation by former juvenile detainee Dylan Voller.

Voller is endeavouring to sue the television broadcaster and newspaper publishers over comments on the Facebook pages of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report.

His defamation case, launched in the New South Wales state Supreme Court in 2017, was put on hold while the separate question of whether the media companies were liable for Facebook users’ comments was decided.

The companies posted content on their pages about news stories that referred to Voller’s time in a Northern Territory juvenile detention centre.

Facebook users responded by posting comments that Voller alleges were defamatory.

Voller’s lawyers welcomed the ruling for its wider implications for publishers.

“This is a historic step forward in achieved justice for Dylan and also in protecting individuals, especially those who are in a vulnerable position, from being the subject of unmitigated social media mob attacks,” a lawyers’ statement said.

“This decision put responsibility where it should be; on media companies with huge resources, to monitor public comments in circumstances where they know there is a strong likelihood of an individual being defamed.”

The High Court decision upholds the rulings of two lower courts on the question of liability.

Courts have previously ruled that people can be held liable for the continued publication of defamatory statements on platforms they control, such as notice boards, only after they become aware of the comments.

Read the decision or the High Court summary.

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