The High Court of Australia ruled on September 8, 2021, that media outlets are “publishers” of comments posted by anyone on their official Facebook pages. As “publishers,” according to the ruling, the outlets are legally responsible for any defamatory content posted as comments.
If you’ve ever read the comments under any Facebook post about a news story, you understand the absurdity of holding the media outlet liable for what internet weirdos post in response.
The specific case that brought this matter to the High Court was filed by Dylan Voller, a former juvenile detainee. Voller wants to sue several television and newspaper publishers over comments about him posted by thousands of people after coverage of one of his over 200 arrests was featured in an article then posted to Facebook.
In June 2021, Voller’s first lawsuit succeeded when a judge ruled that media outlets had a duty to remove derogatory comments on their Facebook pages, but that wasn’t enough for him. Now the law will require outlets to either screen comments before publishing them, or turn off commenting to protect themselves from liability.
The High Court of Australia ruled 5-2 that by opening the discussion by posting the article, the companies had participated in any defamatory discussion which happened in the comments.
As defendants, the media outlets argued that for them to be considered publishers of the comments, they should have had prior knowledge of their content.
The ruling is “significant for anyone who maintains a public social media page by finding they can be liable for comments posted by others on that page even when they are unaware of those comments,” News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said in a statement.
It places media companies in a situation that requires them to either heavily censor or entirely stifle public discussion of current news on platforms that are supposed to encourage that conversation.