Defamation

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Information on this page has been taken and adapted from The Law Handbook, a FLS publication.

What is defamation?

Defamation law deals with protecting reputations. Defamation law gives a person whose reputation has been wrongfully attacked the right to take legal action against those responsible for the attack”[1]

Words will be defamatory if they would lower a person’s reputation in the eyes of a particular community – or the words cause the person to be ridiculed, avoided, or despised by the general public.

This means that if someone publishes material about you that attacks your reputation or causes you to be ridiculed, avoided, or despised AND that material is not true you can sue them. It also means that if you make similar untrue statements about someone else, you could be sued.

It is up to the person who made the defamatory statements to prove that they are true.

Why is this important for activists?

Activism often involves public campaigning. This can involve media statements, opinion articles, public talks, social media posts, videos etc. These publications can often include statements that are critical of people involved in what you are opposing.

When these critical statements are also defamatory it can put many people at risk of being sued – the author, editor, printers, publishers and anyone else involved in the publication.

If the court finds that you did defame someone, and you have no defences you may have to pay damages (money) to the person you defamed. This can be hundreds of thousands of dollars and could send you or your activist group or organisation bankrupt.

Activism can also put you at risk of being defamed – becoming public on an issue can expose us to criticisms and reputation attacks from those who disagree with us.

It is important to remember that you can take legal action against someone who publishes defamatory things about you. The threat of defamation can also be used as a tactic to scare activists away from making public statements.

If you or someone in your activist group is being defamed – or you have been threatened with legal action – you should get legal advice.

When is a statement defamatory?

Not all statements that are critical are defamatory. For example:

We feel that Mx Smith, the Federal Environment Minister, does not value the environmental importance of this forest and hasn’t consulted adequately with the community

Is probably not defamatory. But this might be:

Mx Smith, the Federal Environment Minister, is anti-environmental protection, has lied to the local community, and is secretly lining their pockets from the logging in this forest.

Remember, you can defend a defamation claim if you can prove that what you said was true. For the above example, you would need to have evidence that Mx Smith was against environmental protection, that they had knowingly made false statements to the community, and that they were personally profiting from the logging deals.

More information

Visit the Law Handbook for more information about defamation, like:

  • Who can sue
  • Who can be sued (liable)
  • What are the defences
  • What to do if you are threatened with defamation legal action

[1] https://www.lawhandbook.org.au/2020_11_02_01_what_is_defamation/

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