Keyboard warriors walking a fine line online

The comment below is in response to a court judgment vindicating a principal -- Tracey Brose -- of a small country school who had been abused online. The accusations against her implied that she was: evil, nasty and horrible; had brought pain and stress on a woman’s family; had mistreated lower-performing children; and brought stress on students who did not achieve A grades.

What lies behind the controversy is that Ms Brose is a "no nonsense" principal who pushes students for good results.  And she gets them, making her very popular with most of the parents

Some parents of slower students, however, thought she was too hard on their offspring and made online comments abusing Ms Brose.  And they were aggressive comments, not polite disagreement. The attacks were what one might expect from people with dim offspring

Ms Brose was distressed by the comments but could not get a retraction so turned to the law of defamation to put a kink in her critics. Had the accused apologized at any point, no further action would have been needed.  But rather than apologize, the small minority of critics doubled down.

The judgement against them  has not diminished their rage but it may be a lesson to others.

CHARACTER assassination on social media needs to be kept in check by courts while still allowing "breathing space for expression", the judge who presided over the Tamborine Mountain case says. District Court Judge Catherine Muir noted in her 140-page decision that people had a right to use defamation laws to sue if they believed their reputation was hurt by untruths but that should not trample on freedom of speech.

Judge Muir said courts could only use "existing defamation" law to assess comments made online in a "growing" number of Facebook and other social media defamation lawsuits.

She noted that "considerable legislative focus and solution" was needed to look at complex defamation law issues in online forums.

Speaking after yesterday's decision, Derek Wilding of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney said a joint effort by the Federal Government and the states and territories was exploring proposals to update defamation law. "But even if the law does change, people will still need to ask themselves whether their online comments might harm someone's reputation," he said.

Mr Wilding said internet users needed to be cautious about what they posted online. "If it's not Facebook that's being sued for defamation in Australia — it's the people who post comments and the people or organisations who own the pages," he said.

"Part of the problem is that we don't assume we're a 'publisher' when we post a comment, but the law sees it differently."

Law academic Michael Douglas said defamation law reform was likely to appear this year, but cases like this would still be in the courts and reforms may not help regular mums and dads sued for defamation. "Keyboard warriors should take a breath and go for a walk before writing something spicy on social media," he said.

From the Brisbane "Courier Mail" of 29/2/20

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