In a landmark decision, Australia’s apex judicial body, the High Court, has dismissed an appeal from major media outlets claiming they were not responsible for comments posted by readers or audience members on their social media pages.
Experts believe the judgement will have wider ramifications across not just media outlets but businesses, government entities, and community organisations, who will have to moderate comments even more stringently—or remove the option altogether—to ensure defamatory comments are not publicised.
The case in question revolved around Dylan Voller, a former inmate at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
Voller sued the publishers of news outlets The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, and Sky News Australia over comments posted by individuals on their Facebook pages in 2016 and 2017.
While the news stories posted online were not defamatory, Voller’s lawyers argued that the comments featured in the posts were defamatory and that the media companies were legally liable.
An initial case was heard in 2019 by the Supreme Court of New South Wales (NSW), who found it in Voller’s favour. In 2020, the NSW Court of Appeal again ruled in Voller’s favour agreeing that the media outlets were the “publishers.”
The media companies appealed once more to the High Court of Australia—the final appellate body in the country—which found in favour of Voller with a five to two majority.
The news company’s lawyers had argued that they were not instrumental to—or were participants in—the allegedly defamatory third-party comments.
However, the court disagreed and found that in creating a Facebook page and posting content, the news outlets facilitated, encouraged, and therefore, assisted in the publication of comments, meaning they should be deemed the publishers.
The High Court also found that it did not matter that the comments function in Facebook could not be disabled at the time.