Media Law: Freedom of Speech and Protecting an Individual’s Reputation

The laws of defamation draw an extremely thin line between freedom of speech and protecting an individual’s reputation. In the field of Public Relations and Journalism, this law puts almost every professional at risk for writing or publishing information that might bring them a defamation suit. The use of social media and online blogs has massively increased and provides a platform that puts all publishers at risk. Social media and internet blogs have replaced traditional mainstream media and are produced in the interest of the public. Whether working independently or for an organization or media outlet, one is responsible for every post and comment that the public could possibly gain access to. In case of bloggers, they are sometimes seen as citizen journalists and therefore possess every risk that a journalist does. This essay will discuss the relationship between defamation and online media cases, increased risk of online publishing, relevant cases and the need for stricter laws regarding social media.

Defamation is a highly sensitive area of the law where a sentence or a word even that is published somewhere could be means to demeaning or spoiling someone’s reputation. As mentioned in Pearson and Polden’s The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law, defamation takes place whenever such material is read or downloaded by an individual or when it is viewed by a relatively bigger number of audience (2018, p. 227). Whether bloggers publish their opinion or republish someone else’s’, in both scenarios they are equally responsible for it and if containing derogatory statement, could be sued. This includes comments made by the public as well. The traditional laws of defamation didn’t always pose such a big threat to online publishers and social media. Initially, creators of new technologies believed that the uniqueness of online media served as a protection from defamation or other legal issues (Troiano, 2006, p. 1447). However, studying the type of material that was being posted online, there was no difference seen between that and traditional print media, and hence are now subject of the same legal risks (Troiano, 2006, p. 1447).

This is an interesting observation considering the number of defamation cases that arise from social media and online websites alone. In fact, according to the Centre of Media Transition, the percentage of digital defamation cases as compared to non-digital is 51% (Centre for Media Transition, n.d.). Looking at such statistics, journalists and PR practitioners have never been more at risk regarding their career and everyday job.

Mickle v Farley (2013) is an example of how a onetime statement on social media can permanently damage someone’s reputation and affect their life and career. Mrs. Mickle, a music teacher became the target of a student’s defamatory post on social media that caused her more than just her reputation (Beasley, et al, n.d). What stood out most in this case is the judge’s statement who said it is common knowledge that when one posts something on social media, that information is bound to be shared. (Beasley et al, n.d). In this case, the defendant purposely made comments on social media that would demean the plaintiff’s reputation. However, in many other cases, people are sued for defamation without them intentionally trying to ruin someone’s reputation or image too.

Another example of a relevant case is Reid v Dukic (2016) where the defendant (Dukic) uploaded nine posts on Facebook about the plaintiff, the CEO of a local football club stating that she was negligent and dishonest amongst other things. Even though it was posted on his personal profile page, everybody was able to read them due to his privacy settings. The court also restricted the defendant from publishing related statements online from there on.

These are two cases out of a pool of hundreds and it shows that although the laws of defamation are new in the area of social media, the same principles are applied. There is a floating misconception that individuals can get away with inappropriate statements when posted online compared to traditional forms of communication and hence do not realize the risk they are exposing themselves to. At the same time, what makes them vulnerable is the permanence of their statements as this enables people to download and keep the material stored (Given & Pearson, 2012). Another misconception is that people who post online believe if at all there is chance for defamation charges, the host website or publisher site will be sued instead of them (Given & Pearson, 2012). It is true that the host website is possible under risk of receiving a suit, however that is not the case always. An alarming factor in these cases is also the fact that the plaintiffs and defendants are regular citizens. The ratio of the general public becoming targets of defamation suits has also increased since the evolution of social media.

From research, cases related to online media will continue to rise. Although cases are filed, traditional defamation laws do not have a set of rules related to social media alone considering the diversity of its nature. Judge Gibson of the NSW District Court mentioned how the laws “barely mention internet publication or social media” (MacCallum, 2015, p. 679). Every organization, small or big, use social media for business purposes and with the nature of the internet, anything and everything posted online could be subject to a defamation suit.

This essay’s primary focus is to discuss defamation from the online perspective and how there has been a concerning rise in the number of cases. Every statement posted online, fact or opinion poses a risk of influencing someone’s reputation, whether anticipated by the publisher or not. The cases discussed in this essay both portray how the lives of two ordinary citizens changed for the worse when defamatory statements were published online without any truth to it. From a wider point of view, this kind of constant risk does not contribute towards a safe online environment that effects one’s personal and professional lives. However, individuals posting inappropriate content online also need to be mindful and ethical about how they might be portraying someone’s identity and the possible consequences of their words.