The High Court in Australia has handed down a hugely significant decision regarding whether media companies are responsible for potentially defamatory statements posted by third party users on the Facebook pages established and operated by the media companies. By a majority decision the Australian High Court held that the media companies were, for the purposes of defamation law, the publishers of third party posts which were posted on the Facebook pages of the media companies in response to news stories posted on the Facebook pages by the media companies.
The position taken by the media companies in the proceedings was that:
However five of the Australian High Court judges (by way of two separate judgments) did take the view that the media companies should be regarded as the publishers of the third party posts. The conclusion outlined in one of these joint judgements was as follows:
“Each appellant ((being the media companies) intentionally took a platform provided by another entity, Facebook, created and administered a public Facebook page and posted content on that page. The creation of the public Facebook, and the posting of content on that page, encouraged and facilitated publication of comments from third parties. The appellants were therefore publishers of the third party comments.”
This was the view of the majority notwithstanding that the “Comment” function was a standard feature of the Facebook service which could not be disabled and comments could not be deleted in advance.
Two other judges, who each delivered their own separate judgments, took a different view. Edelman J took what might be described as a compromise approach and held that the news stories posted by the media companies were not an invitation to the world at large to post comments on anything and everything however unrelated to the news story. In Edelman’s view, the media companies should only be liable if the comments posted had some connection to or relevance to the news story posted by the media company. For example, if the media company posted a story about the weather the media company ought not be liable for third party defamatory posts made about a completely unrelated individual.
Steward J adopted an approach most favourable to the media companies and stated that, in his view, by maintaining a public Facebook page and posting news stories on it the media company is just commencing an electronic conversation. And even though the media companies posted such news stories on Facebook with the intent of promoting or encouraging members of the public to make comment the media company ought not be construed as the publisher of those subsequent posts unless it could be said that the media company had procured or provoked the defamatory comment made by the member of the public.
This Australian High Court decision has major implications for any business in Australia which maintains a public Facebook page on which potentially defamatory comments could be posted. Or indeed any business which operates or maintains a social media platform on which subscribers, consumers or members of the public can make posts.
If you have any queries regarding the decision and how it may affect your business please contact Michael Bishop At Pointon Partners, Melbourne, Australia for advice.