If you can’t say anything nice …


Sometimes it pays to remember some of mum’s old sayings such as ….

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything”.

Many people may think a little longer before posting anything to Facebook following a court decision that will cost an Australian couple thousands. The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that even though they didn’t create a poster that was considered defamatory, they added an image of it to Facebook and therefore are liable for legal costs for action taken in New South Wales courts.

A Sydney couple have been left with a $15,000 legal bill after their comments about a neighbour’s dogs on a community social media page saw them sued for defamation in the NSW District Court.

In July last year a series of posters was placed in public areas around Scotland Island, an idyllic island about 30 kilometres north of Sydney in Pittwater accessible only by boat, which is home to about 1000 people. Headlined “Attention Island Residents”, it accused Nader Mohareb of failing to control his “agitated and highly excitable” King Charles spaniels in public places. – SMH

A photo of the poster was added to the community Facebook page. The accused couple deny creating the poster but admit to posting on the page and adding comments.

For some reason, many people using social media feel that they have the right to say whatever they choose about others without facing the consequences. This court action proves otherwise.

I wonder why so many people say things online that they wouldn’t dream of saying face to face.

Scottish author and theologian Rev. John Watson, writing under the name Ian Maclaren is quoted as saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I think he was onto something.

Sometimes we need to say hard things or challenge others, but we need to do it in the right way, at the right time and using the right medium. A public Facebook or Twitter post almost never fulfills those criteria. One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is why we feel the need to say something hard. Is it to help the other person, correct a wrong, or simply because we want to hurt someone else?

[bctt tweet=”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. – Ian MacLaren”]

We never know what someone else is facing and while that’s never an excuse for ‘bad behaviour’, it’s a good reason to be cautious in the way we deal with others. It shouldn’t be the threat of legal action that causes us to hold back from an explosive tweet or hurtful Facebook update. It should be more about the fact that we’re humans dealing with other humans and knowing our own frailties, refusing to throw stones at others and their frailties.

Just in case you’re still tempted ‘have a go’ using social media, it’s worth considering these facts about social media defamation from Slater and Gordon.

When posting on Facebook or Twitter, take the newspaper test – think of yourself as an editor of a newspaper or media outlet, because you will be just as liable if you defame someone.

Here are five things you should know about social media defamation:

1. In general terms, defamation occurs when a person intentionally spreads information about another person, group of people, or small company that damages their reputation, or can make others think less of them.
2. Defamation is actionable regardless of the medium. A person can be defamed, for example, in print, through photos and on the internet.
3. Defamation cases involving the internet and social media are relatively new, but the same principles apply.
4. A person who did not create the defamatory material, but only shares it (for instance, by “retweeting” a tweet), can also be held found liable guilty of defamation.
5. There are several defences to defamation, including that the statement was true, or that it was an expression of an honest opinion. Consequently, you may be liable for defamation if you spread information which constitutes a hurtful and untrue statement of fact about another person.

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About the author

Rodney Olsen

Rodney is a husband, father, cyclist, blogger and podcaster from Perth Western Australia.

He previously worked in radio for about 25 years but these days he spends his time at Compassion Australia, working towards releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name.

The views he expresses here are his own.

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