Australian Defamation Case Study: The Hockey Incident

Australian defamation law
A surprising decision in an Australian Twitter defamation case further defines Internet libel laws in the Antipodes.

An Australian defamation ruling will probably affect how Australians’ tweets from here on out.

In this post, we’ll review the case, and then examine the likelihood of a U.S. court delivering the same verdict. If you’ve landed on this page in search of an international online defamation lawyer, click here.

The Tweets That Launched an Australian Defamation Lawsuit

In May of last year, Fairfax Media (an Aussie media outlet) ran a story about Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey’s alleged complicity with, what sounds like, a modern-day political simony scheme. According to Fairfax Media, a Sydney business group supposedly bestowed inappropriate “access” on Hockey, presumably in exchange for political favors.

As part of efforts to promote the story, Fairfax released two tweets. One said, “Treasurer Hockey for sale,” followed by a link; the second tweet, which also included a micro-summary of the story, read, “Treasurer for Sale: Joe Hockey offers privileged access.”

In response, Hockey filed an online defamation lawsuit.

Both sides presented their arguments, and Justice Richard White ultimately decided:

“There would have been a large number of persons, perhaps in the tens of thousands, who read the bare tweets and who did not read further.”

After the ruling, a Fairfax Media spokesperson explained to the press:

“The Court upheld Fairfax’s defense of the articles and found them not to be defamatory. Mr Hockey’s claims were only upheld in respect to the publication of the SMH [Sydney Morning Herald] poster and two tweets by The Age because they lacked the context of the full articles.”

So, what does this all mean? In the Fairfax Media Twitter defamation case, the court ruled that the investigative article, about Hockey, wasn’t defamatory, but the tweets were libelous because they lacked clarifying context.

Would Hockey Have Won This Twitter Defamation Case In A U.S. Court?

Two win a defamation lawsuit in the United States, at the very least, plaintiffs must meet the following requirements.

Falsity: A statement isn’t defamatory if it’s true. Claimants must prove that the defendants made false declarations of fact.

Harm: It’s not enough to demonstrate that a statement was false. Typically, plaintiffs must show that the speech caused material or reputational damage. (The exception to this rule is defamation per se, which you can read more about here, in the sidebar.)

Negligence or Actual Malice: Intention is a big part of defamation law. To win a case, plaintiffs must prove that the defendants either acted negligently or intentionally released the inaccurate information.

So, taking the parameters of U.S. defamation law into consideration, would Hockey have won this Twitter legal battle on American soil? Probably not. Especially since the court found that the article, which the tweets referenced, was not defamatory.

Differences Between U.S. and Australian Defamation Law

Slander and libel laws in the United States and Australia are a lot different than some people may think. Like other British Commonwealth nations, Australian defamation laws are more plaintiff-friendly than those in the United States,  which is why some stateside clients choose to file overseas, circumstances permitting. That said, so-called libel tourism is universally frowned upon; and though it has been done, getting any court to accept a foreign defamation case is no easy task, especially since the 2013 libel reforms.

Speak With An International Online Defamation Attorney

Our firm has successfully handled hundreds of Internet defamation and trade libel cases. A top firm with Av-rated attorneys, Kelly Warner lawyers are known for their attention to detail and creative solutions.

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