Unsavoury tweets can lead to hefty payouts /Newsport

Unsavoury tweets can lead to hefty payouts

Wednesday March 12 2014

Be careful using Twitter, you might be sued for defamation.

There, I have said it in less than the 140 character limit, but there is much more to the story than that.

Much was made this week of an award of $105,000 against a 20-year-old Orange former schoolboy Andrew Farley who used Twitter to defame a music teacher who was appointed to a position vacated by his father on medical grounds.

Farley wrongly asserted that the new teacher was somehow responsible for his father's leaving the job.The District Court judge thought the Tweet so ugly that he did not repeat it in his judgment.

The case does not break any new law, but might change habits. There may be a popular view that speaking on social media is just a harmless conversation with your mates, but it is wrong.

The social media is publication as far as the law is concerned and you will be liable for defamatory imputations you cannot prove true or otherwise defend.

Defamation is not a pitfall just for the big media with their presumably careful –law-savvy journalists and editors backed by deep pockets and skillful lawyers.

There have been quite a few other well-publicised cases of social-media users being sued.

Does this mean that people whose reputation is trashed on Twitter now have an effective remedy and that the law is catching up with technology?

Not a bit of it.

The courageous music teacher fought for her reputation to the end, but it took a couple of years, and despite the award, few 20-year-olds have a lazy $105,000 in their pack pocket to pay out a judgment.

If pursued, he will go bankrupt, and she will get nothing. Even if he pays, the teacher's actual legal costs will be much higher than the awarded costs and there will not be much change from her $105,000.

So you only have to be careful on Twitter if you are a property owner and you defame someone who is tenacious enough with a pocket deep enough to sustain a long legal battle.

Fair-minded people should take everything they see in the social media with a grain of salt.

Mainstream media, on the other hand, urges you to believe what is published because it has been properly vetted.

So the damages should be higher. But even the more limited publications on social media can be extremely damaging.

This is because material on social media usually circulates to the very people in who eyes defendants hold their reputation high.

Farley's tweet probably went around the Orange school community like wildfire, whereas people further away ignored it.

So in her community the teacher was severely damaged. She felt she could no longer teach.

Human nature is such that many people prefer the expression "where there's smoke, there's fire", to a more reasoned approach that rantings on social media should be ignored and that anything that can be said in 140 characters is either not worth saying or so truncated as to be a distortion.

The importance of cases like this is not that they offer effective, universal remedies but in their deterrence value.

Defamation law in Australia has improved since 2006, but it is probably still weighted against publishers dealing with major public-interest matters, but it should not be so weighted in favour of free speech so that any twit on Twitter or fool of Facebook can publish what they like about anyone to the very circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances whose esteem they hold dear.