Australian Court Holds Media Firms Liable for User Comments

The High Court of Australia upheld a lower court ruling that found media companies — including newspapers and TV stations — that post on Facebook are liable for Facebook users’ comments on those posts. It stated that, by creating a public Facebook page, media outlets “facilitated and encouraged comments” from users and are responsible for defamatory content. News Corp Australia, a subsidiary of News Corp, and Nine Entertainment, which owns the Sydney Morning Herald, called for legislators to protect them from liability.

The Wall Street Journal reports that News Corp and Nine Entertainment “had appealed to the High Court, Australia’s equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, after a lower court in the Australian state of New South Wales ruled last year that the media companies are responsible for third-party comments.”

News Corp Australia executive chair Michael Miller stated that, “this highlights the need for urgent legislative reform and I call on Australia’s attorneys general to address this anomaly and bring Australian law into line with comparable Western democracies.”

Facebook noted that it “introduced a feature that effectively allows media companies to turn off comments on their Facebook pages, which could protect media outlets from defamation allegations but also make it more difficult to promote their articles and earn advertising revenue.”

University of Melbourne associate law professor Jason Bosland said the ruling “could hinder the ability of media companies to promote important public-interest journalism … [and that] even moderating comments in real time wouldn’t be enough to completely shield newspapers from liability, because the ruling effectively means media companies are responsible for people’s comments the instant they are posted.”

The original case was brought by Dylan Voller, detained in a juvenile detention center, and the subject of accusations of serious crimes by Facebook users reading articles about him. Voller’s lawyers at O’Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors stated that, “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.”

WSJ notes that, “Australia is already considered to be a defamation hot spot because of plaintiff-friendly laws that make it easier to win defamation lawsuits compared with other jurisdictions.” Because free speech isn’t protected by the constitution, “a defendant such as a newspaper must prove that a statement is true.”

In the U.S., however, “where the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove an alleged defamatory statement is false.” Some Australian states have approved changes to the law and “a second stage of reforms, including looking at whether online platforms should be held liable for comments from third-party users, is also being considered.”

In the U.S., however, legislators have called on removing an exemption for “social-media companies like Facebook from legal liability for what people post on the site.”