Category Archives: defamation

A mindful approach to introducing defamation to students #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Colleagues from Griffith University gathered for a celebration of teaching and learning this week and I had the honour of presenting an open class session.

The forum was called ‘Teaching Using Engaging and Empowering Pedagogies’ and my class was titled ‘Practising mindfulness in the tertiary classroom’.

It was an attempt at putting into practice some of the research we have been undertaking in this space in recent years.

For the research underpinning it, please see:

Pearson, M., McMahon, C., O’Donovan, A. and O’Shannessy, D. (2019), ‘Building journalists’ resilience through mindfulness strategies’. Journalism. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464884919833253

Pearson, M., McMahon, C., and O’Donovan, A. (2018) ‘Potential benefits of teaching mindfulness to journalism students’. Asia Pacific Media Educator (December). 28:2: https://doi.org/10.1177/1326365X18800080

You should get the gist of the mindfulness-based activities involved from the slide show captured below.

Enjoy.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

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Rare criminal defamation charge in Queensland – #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

QUEENSLAND police have charged a Sunshine Coast man with criminal defamation under a rarely used provision of the Criminal Code 1899.

They will allege he distributed pamphlets to neighbourhood homes claiming a former associate was a paedophile.

As Lord Denning, in the 1977 Goldsmith case, said, ‘A criminal libel is so serious that the offender should be punished for it by the state itself. He should either be sent to prison or made to pay a fine to the state itself’ (at 485).

As we explain in the sixth edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Pearson and Polden, Allen & Unwin, 2019, pp 298-299), instances of criminal defamation usually arise between ordinary citizens rather than in the media.

Examples include the Wineries case (1998), where a disgruntled businessman penned a letter, purportedly from his business partner’s wife, in which she described her husband as someone who ‘engages in adultery, deception, taxation fraud and is a confidence trickster’ who could be ‘compared to the worst, most infectious, bacterial parasite which can only be found at the bottom of the most unhygienic sewage scum swamp’.

The man sent the letter to at least one South Australian winery and pleaded guilty to criminal defamation.

In 2001, a quadriplegic woman and her mother were charged with six counts of criminal defamation after they allegedly posted notices accusing townsfolk of perjuring themselves in her compensation claim against the local council and its swimming pool operators (Quadriplegic case, 2001). Police later dropped the charges.

Horse racing identities Robert and William Waterhouse prosecuted the producer and reporter of an ABC Four Corners program. The NSW Director of Public Prosecutions eventually stepped in to prevent the defamation prosecutions from proceeding because the defence of qualified privilege was going to be available (Waterhouse case, 1988).

The most famous instance in Australia was the politically motivated prosecution of leftist author Frank Hardy for criminal libel over his volcanic first novel Power Without Glory in August 1950, which he successfully defended.

Sadly, criminal defamation and seditious libel have often been used as political weapons against opposition groups and the media in many small Commonwealth countries.

For media law geeks, the Queensland legislation reads as follows:

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CRIMINAL CODE 1899 – SECT 365

Criminal defamation

365 Criminal defamation

(1) Any person who, without lawful excuse, publishes matter defamatory of another living person (the
“relevant person” )—

(a) knowing the matter to be false or without having regard to whether the matter is true or false; and

(b) intending to cause serious harm to the relevant person or any other person or without having regard to whether serious harm to the relevant person or any other person is caused;

commits a misdemeanour.

Penalty—

Maximum penalty—3 years imprisonment.

(2) In a proceeding for an offence defined in this section, the accused person has a lawful excuse for the publication of defamatory matter about the relevant person if, and only if, subsection (3) applies.

(3) This subsection applies if the accused person would, having regard only to the circumstances happening before or at the time of the publication, have had a relevant defencefor the publication if the relevant person had brought civil proceedings for defamation against the accused person.

(4) The prosecution has the burden of negativing the existence of a lawful excuse if, and only if, evidence directed to establishing the excuse is first adduced by or on behalf of the accused person.

(5) Whether the matter complained of is capable of bearing a defamatory meaning is a question of law.

(6) Whether the matter complained of does bear a defamatory meaning is a question of fact.

(7) A person can not be prosecuted for an offence defined in this section without the consent of the director of public prosecutions.

(8) In this section—
“defamatory” has the meaning that it has in the law of tort (as modified by the Defamation Act 2005 ) relating to defamation.
“modified statutory defence of justification” means the defence stated in the Defamation Act 2005 section 25 as if that section provided that it is a defence to the publication of defamatory matter if the defendant proves that—

(a) the defamatory imputations carried by the matter of which the relevant person complains are substantially true; and

(b) it was for the public benefit that the publication should be made.

“publish” has the meaning that it has in the law of tort (as modified by the Defamation Act 2005 ) relating to defamation.
“relevant defence” means—

(a) a defence available under the Defamation Act 2005 other than—

(i) the statutory defence of justification; or

(ii) the statutory defence of failure to accept reasonable offer; or

(b) the modified statutory defence of justification; or

(c) a defence available other than under the Defamation Act 2005 , including under the general law.

“statutory defence of failure to accept reasonable offer” means the defence stated in the Defamation Act 2005 section 18 (1) .
“statutory defence of justification” means the defence stated in the Defamation Act 2005 section 25 .

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2019

 

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Why study media law? #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

More than 200 new media law students embark on our seven week summer intensive course next week, so I thought it timely to reflect upon what might be gained from studying media law.

About two thirds will be attending classes in person, while the balance will be undertaking the course online. The cohort is almost evenly divided between journalism, law and communication students, with a few others taking it as an elective.

Here are 10 key benefits of media law study:

  1. Identifying and assessing risks in publishing is the new digital literacy. Traditionally only journalists and some lawyers really needed to know about media law, but now every citizen must know the risks of publishing because we are all now publishers as we post to social media, send emails and release our blogs, videos, films, games, software and images.
  2. Many areas of the law coalesce in ‘media law’, making it an excellent introduction to the legal system for journalists and public relations practitioners and a fertile field of revision and practice for law students.
  3. Media law presents a wonderful opportunity to explore the many competing rights and interests in society as the rights to free expression, information, and a free media compete with other important rights including reputation, a fair trial, privacy, confidentiality, intellectual property and national security, along with the right to be free from discrimination in all its forms.
  4. It affords us a superb showcase of the role of the news media in the varied political systems internationally as governments select different points where free expression should be curtailed. You learn that free expression is a continuum, with fewer restrictions in some nations and alarming censorship in others. International students get to compare Australia’s media laws with those in their home countries.
  5. Just as truth might be shackled by some governments and individuals, media law offers insights into so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘false news’ by demonstrating how fair and accurate reporting and publications can earn special protections and how ethical research and reporting can be rewarded by the courts.
  6. Media law cases are often fascinating portrayals of human foibles, egos and temptations and sometimes have elements of the Shakespearean tragedy where good reporting exposes the abuse of power.
  7. The laws and examples encourage the exercise of mindfulness in communication practice. A few moments spent reflecting upon risk and harm before publication might save you many dollars in fines or damages and perhaps even time in jail. Also, many a media law case could have been avoided by a simple utterance of the word ‘sorry’ and a heart-felt offer of amends (both on legal advice!).
  8. Problem-based media law learning offers a vivid insight into how a prickly legal situation might arise, and helps you navigate a course of action after assessing the legal risks. Robust and truthful journalism can still be produced within the bounds of the law, in some countries at least.
  9. Media law cases and reforms are in the news on a regular basis, adding relevance and topicality to your studies as you watch cases involving real people contested in the courts and covered in the news media.
  10. Finally, you learn that all laws can be improved, so you engage with the continuous process of media law reform. You learn about the reform process, access historical reform recommendations in your research, and have the opportunity to recommend your own reforms in areas of your interest. You are even encouraged to make submissions to current law reform commission and parliamentary inquiries.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Case study shows the legal pros and cons of a media release

By MARK PEARSON

MEDIA releases are meant to enhance brand reputation but they can sometimes have the reverse effect, as we explain in the forthcoming sixth edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Allen & Unwin, 2019).


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We profile the Born Brands case (2013), where two media releases had vastly different consequences for the manufacturers of a device to help better position infants during sleep.

The first was particularly successful, generating a news segment on Brisbane Extra about its Babywedge product and an appearance on national morning television (Born Brands case, para. 8).

But the second media release—this time emanating from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)—caused unexpected damage because it warned consumers against using infant sleep positioners.

Babywedge then featured on a Channel 9 news segment among other such products in a story about the potential dangers of infant sleep positioners (at para. 14).

As part of the fallout from the crisis, Born Brands sued the Nine Network for both defamation and injurious falsehood, claiming the news item damaged its reputation as a small corporation (fewer than 10 employees) and that it contained false statements, published with malice, which had caused it actual financial loss (injurious falsehood).

However, the company found no relief because the television network managed to defend both actions successfully, with the court finding the statements were not false and that no malice had been proven (paras 184–9).

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Like earlier editions, our text aims to give professional communicators and students a basic working understanding of the key areas of media law and ethical regulation likely to affect them in their research, writing and publishing across media platforms. It tries to do this by introducing the basic legal concepts while exploring the ways in which a professional communicator’s work practices can be adapted to withstand legal challenges.

If you wish to request a copy for course inspection or media review please contact the publisher, Allen & Unwin, who will have printed copies available from late November.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

 

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Defending truth: case study from our new edition

By MARK PEARSON

DEFENDING a defamation action using the truth or justification defence can have its hurdles, but this case we profile in the forthcoming sixth edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Allen & Unwin, 2019) demonstrates how a major publication used it effectively.

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The Vocational Education case

Charan v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2018] VSC 3

Facts

In late 2015, The Australian newspaper published a print article (‘Watchdog Takes Peak Training College to Court’) and a similar online version (‘ACCC to Take Top Training College Phoenix Institute to Court’). The story was about proposed court action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) against a vocational training college called Phoenix Institute owned by the publicly listed Australian Careers Network. The article mentioned earlier media reports that alleged Phoenix had sent sales staff into housing commission estates, pressuring potential students to join up, and stated that the parent company was under investigation by both the federal Department of Education and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) and that its shares had been suspended from trading on the stock exchange for the previous month. The article identified the plaintiff, Atkinson Prakash Charan, as one of the company’s heads and stated that he had amassed a $35 million fortune from the vocational education business. In short, it suggested that, ‘whilst under his management, VET organisations acted unscrupulously, in breach of regulatory standards, and that he made a large amount of money as a result of that conduct’ (para. 2). Mr Charan had in fact left the company about a year earlier and the next day The Australian published a correction to that effect in its print edition and later an online apology for the error.

Law

The plaintiff pleaded that eight imputations arose from the article, which the judge grouped into four headings (para. 27):

  1. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company that engaged in unscrupulous business practices that took advantage of vulnerable consumers.
  2. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company that engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct.
  3. Mr Charan was head of ACN, which engaged in unscrupulous door-to-door marketing practices to vulnerable consumers.
  4. Mr Charan [as head of] ACN carried on a business which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards.

The defendant, Nationwide News—publisher of The Australian—argued successfully that imputations 2 and 3 did not arise in the articles and defended the imputations of unscrupulous business practices and significant non-compliance with quality standards using the justification (truth) defence by proving that the imputations were substantially true as required under section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005. To prove the substantial truth of the unscrupulous conduct allegations, it had to convince the court under the civil burden of proof—the ‘balance of probabilities’—that there was ‘clear and cogent proof’. To do so, it drew upon a host of material obtained after the publication, including:

  • the oral testimony of a number of witnesses who had worked in the Community Training Initiatives (CTI) group
  • the oral testimony of three ‘students’ allegedly enrolled in CTI courses conducted by CTI companies
  • the contents of a series of audit reports, student interviews and file reviews (with associated documentation), carried out in 2015
  • a large number of emails and associated documents flowing to and from Mr Charan and other officers or employees of the CTI companies (para. 77).

The latter included records of phone calls and messages subpoenaed from Mr Charan’s telephone service provider, Telstra.

Justice Forrest found that the plaintiff was ‘was an entirely unreliable witness, not only on this issue but as to all matters relevant to his claim’ (para. 111). He concluded with a concise summary of his 768-paragraph judgment:

(a)   Mr Charan was defamed in both the written and online versions of the article;

(b)  the article defamed him by conveying imputations that:

(1)       Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which engaged in unscrupulous business practices which took advantage of vulnerable consumers which resulted in him making a large amount of money; and

(2)       Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards

I am satisfied that Nationwide has established the substantial truth of both imputations (paras 762–3).

Lessons for professional communicators

Several lessons arise from this rare successful use of the justification (substantial truth) defence by a publisher:

  • Considerable evidence can be needed to prove the truth of imputations stemming from an article, and sometimes this has to be located after publication and before trial, although as much evidence as possible should be available at the time of publication;
  • A publisher defendant can still win a case on the pleaded imputations even if there is a basic error in the story—in this case, the fact that Mr Charan had not been formally involved with the management of the company for a year. (Of course, such errors should normally be avoided.)
  • Defamation cases can be enormously expensive. In this case, the 35-day trial was reported to have cost both sides more than $3.5 million in legal fees (Houston, Duke and Vedelago, 2018)

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Like earlier editions, our text aims to give professional communicators and students a basic working understanding of the key areas of media law and ethical regulation likely to affect them in their research, writing and publishing across media platforms. It tries to do this by introducing the basic legal concepts while exploring the ways in which a professional communicator’s work practices can be adapted to withstand legal challenges.

If you wish to request a copy for course inspection or media review please contact the publisher, Allen & Unwin, who will have printed copies available from late November.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

 

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Social media developments have legal implications and require a new literacy

By MARK PEARSON

Every new development in Internet and social media communication renders countless new people ‘publishers’ –  exposed to risky media law situations they might never have anticipated. 


Advances in communication technology in this new millennium have redefined the ways in which most of us share news and information. Industry upheaval and technological disruption have prompted many journalists to retool as bloggers, public relations consultants, multimedia producers and social media editors.

These roles add exciting new dimensions to journalism and strategic communications—including conversations and engagement with audiences and instant global publishing at the press of a button. But they also present new legal risks that most professional communicators – and even ordinary citizens – did not envisage in the twentieth century.

The changes have been so profound that they have impacted the ways we live and organise our lives and work practices. It is only when we review some of the milestones of the internet and Web 2.0, together with the legal and regulatory changes they have prompted, that we start to appreciate the need for all professional communicators to be knowledgeable about media law.

While the worldwide connection of computers, giving rise to the phenomenon we know as the internet, dates back to the early 1980s, it did not start to impact the lives of ordinary citizens until the mid-1990s. Melbourne’s Age newspaper became one of the first in the world to offer an online edition in 1995 (van Niekerk, 2005). Over the ensuing years, entrepreneurs started to embrace the commercial potential of the World Wide Web, just as consumers began to use it to source products and services, and students began to engage with it as an educational tool—predominantly from their desktop computers.

By the end of 2016, there were approximately 13.5 million internet subscribers in Australia (ABS, 2017). It was not until August 2003 that the first major social networking platform, MySpace, was launched in California. It was the leading social networking site in the world from 2005 until 2008, when it was surpassed in popularity by Facebook, which by 2017 had almost two billion monthly users, including 15 million in Australia (Media Watch, 2017). In the six months to June 2016, 93 per cent of internet users aged 18 to 24 used social networking sites (ACMA, 2016:  58). Streaming of entertainment and news has also become part of daily life.

In June 2016, 39 per cent of Australian adults had watched Netflix in the previous seven days, while 27 per cent had watched professional content on YouTube and 16 per cent had viewed the pay television service Foxtel (ACMA, 2016: 82). In the United States by 2017, six out of ten young adults were primarily using online streaming to watch television (Rainie, 2017). Associated with this was the remarkable uptake of the mobile telephone and other devices. The iPhone was only launched in 2007, but by 2016 more than three-quarters of Australians owned a smartphone (ACMA, 2016: 18). The iPad was born in mid-2010 into a market segment that many experts thought did not exist, but by 2016 more than half of Australians used or owned a tablet device (ACMA, 2016: 55).

Even more technologies are unfolding rapidly, with implications for both the media and the law, with the increasing use of drone devices for news-gathering purposes and the awe-inspiring Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday devices are all interconnected, offering novel news-gathering and delivery systems for the media but also complex legal ramifications—particularly in the realm of privacy and security law.

Governments, courts and other regulators have been forced to decide on the various rights and interests affected by these new media forms, and some of their decisions have taken private enterprise by surprise. It is a far more difficult task, however, to educate the broader community about social media legal risks.

The core message is that we are all publishers in the eyes of the law when we publish a blog or post to a social media platform, and in that role all citizens are subject to the same laws that have affected journalists and publishers for centuries.

Further, the instantaneous and global nature of the media means that we may also be the subject of foreign laws of countries other than Australia—particularly if we work for a multinational corporation, or choose to travel to, or have had material we wrote downloaded in, a place where our posts might have broken the law or infringed upon someone’s rights. These laws include defamation, contempt of court, intellectual property, confidentiality, privacy, discrimination and national security.

All this makes a strong argument for greater social media literacy among professional communicators and the wider community.

[Excerpted from Pearson, M. and Polden, M. (2019, 6th edition, forthcoming). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law. A Legal Handbook for Digital Communicators. (Allen & Unwin, Sydney).]

References

Australian Associated Press (AAP) 2017, ‘Changes to media ownership laws’, SBS, 14 September, <www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/14/changes-media-ownership-laws>.

Australian Bureau of Statistics] 2017, Internet Activity, Australia, December 2016, cat. no. 8153, ABS, Canberra, <www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8153.0>.

Australian Communications and Media Authority] 2016, Communications Report 2015–2016. ACMA, Sydney, <www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/Library/researchacma/Research-reports/communications-report-2015-16>.

van Niekerk, M. 2005, ‘Online to the future’, The Age, 28 January, <www.theage.com.au/news/National/Online-to-the-future/2005/01/27/1106415726255.html>.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Defamation research and social media mean it’s time to consider reform

By MARK PEARSON

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my commentary welcoming the NSW Government’s rethink of defamation law in the light of recent research showing a large number of cases involve ordinary citizens (rather than celebrities) and social media posts (as distinct from media publications).

It was titled ‘Social media gives people a wider audience for their bile – and defamation laws must reflect that’.

Here is the extended unedited version for those with a special interest:

The decision to review NSW defamation laws announced yesterday is overdue, and changes need to address several aspects of the legislation as well as the very human flaws of vindictive remarks, fragile egos and ignorance of the law.

NSW District Court defamation expert Judge Judith Gibson called for reform this week, pointing to the rise of Internet-related defamation cases, a phenomenon unanticipated when uniform defamation laws were introduced throughout Australia in a landmark 2005 reform.

Her argument was underscored by research released last week by the UTS Centre for Media Transition which found that more than half of defamation cases over the past five years involved reputational damage in a digital medium, up from 17 per cent in 2007 when social media was in its infancy.

The common perception that defamation cases typically involve celebrities suing the media for millions of dollars – like recent litigants Rebel Wilson and Geoffrey Rush – is a myth. The study showed that among the 189 decided cases from 2013-2017, only one third of defendants were media companies, and only about one fifth of those bringing the action were celebrities or public figures.

When you read the detail on the cases, it becomes clear that most defamation cases are contests between ordinary citizens over negative remarks they have made about each other on social media, websites, emails and other means of digital communication.

With the advent of social media, everyone is a publisher in the eyes of defamation law – and many more people in far-flung places can see or hear the nasty things we say about each other.

Broken friendships, business disagreements and political or moral debates escalate and get vindictive and personal.

There was the first Twitter case where a misguided former student posted a social media character assassination against a school teacher because he mistakenly thought she had cost his father his job.

And the disgruntled businessman who used the social media platform WeChat and targeted emails to tell the world a meat trader was a conman, corrupt and a criminal, with no factual basis.

And the Victorian junior football umpire with Asperger’s Syndrome who was taunted on a US autism website with falsities that he was a pedophile and was faking his condition.

For centuries there have been some people inclined to write poison pen letters, spread nasty rumours and to post sick messages on public noticeboards and toilet walls. The Internet and social media has given them a wide audience for their bile and some of these now result in defamation trials.

Prior to the 2005 reforms, defamation law in Australia was a complicated mess. Major variations existed across the states and territories on a host of issues, including the limitation periods in which people could bring an action and the defences available. ‘Forum shopping’ was rife, with plaintiffs selecting the jurisdiction where the law best suited their case.

The reforms were remarkable in that attorneys-general in eight states and territories reached agreement and forged the changes through their parliaments.

But those laws are desperately in need of reform if they are to catch up with the social and technological changes of the past decade.

The ‘offer of amends’ system introduced with the last reforms was a novel initiative to keep actions out of court with encouragement for an early offer of damages and an apology. But it is complex, often appealed, and other mediation incentives should be put in place to educate parties about settling their differences earlier to avoid the public and personal expense and distress of litigation. Alternative remedies to damages and injunctions would be a bonus.

The triviality defence is flawed and needs to include something of the flavor of the UK’s “serious harm” test – requiring serious reputational harm as a prerequisite to an action.

Changes also need to encourage public interest journalism rather than punish it.

Journalists deserve a stronger public interest (qualified privilege) defence which does not fail when they refuse to reveal their confidential sources and allows for minor errors in important exposés.

And the truth defence should be narrowed to focus on the single most obvious defamatory meaning to give certainty to the reportage so that lawyers do not generate more obscure meanings a journalist might never have anticipated when researching a story.

The implied freedom to communicate on matters of government – a welcome but technical initiative of the High Court – should be enshrined as a formal statutory defence and satirists should get their own defence to better protect robust political critique via parody and satire.

But in tandem with defamation reforms we need government investment in digital legal literacy. School and adult learning curricula must include the basic legalities of social media and Internet use – stressing the key risks posed by defamatory and contemptuous posts.

Teachers might use some of those moral aphorisms our mothers used to tell us.

They would scold us over our nasty comments with “Do not say to others what you would not want said to you”.

And they would soothe our fragile egos:  and “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Education and mediation encouraging mindful communication might resolve some defamation actions before they even start.

 


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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