NSW woman wins landmark Twitter defamation case: Court awards $105,000

A former school student has been ordered to pay $105,000 for defaming a teacher on Twitter and Facebook.

District Court judge Michael Elkaim ruled former Orange High School student Andrew Farley should pay compensatory and aggravated damages for making false allegations about music teacher Christine Mickle.

The unreported judgment handed down in November last year was covered by Fairfax, which reports the ruling is the first Twitter defamation action to proceed to trial in Australia.

Judge Elkaim said the comments had had a “devastating effect” on the teacher, who immediately took sick leave and only returned to work on a limited basis late last year.

“When defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread,” Judge Elkaim said.

“They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication.”

Farley, who was 20 at the time of the judgment, posted a series of defamatory comments on Twitter and Facebook about Mickle in November 2012.

Evidence was given that Mickle would have otherwise continued teaching as she had before.

Judge Elkaim ordered Farley pay $85,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in aggravated damages given that Farley  ignored a letter from Mickle’s lawyers in November 2012 and removed the comments and apologised “unreservedly” only after they wrote to him again in December.

Judge Elkaim said the apparent sincerity of the apology was contradicted by Mr Farley when he attempted to argue in his defence that the comments were true.

Andrew Kenyon, professor at Melbourne University’s Centre for Media and Communications Law, told SmartCompany businesses should be aware that normal defamation law does apply to Twitter.

“Anything that you say on Twitter which would harm someone’s reputation could make you liable,” he says.

However Kenyon concedes “a whole lot of stuff on Twitter is said like that and usually people don’t sue.”

Kenyon says Farley could potentially have avoided the litigation by apologising immediately.

“Businesses realise they could be liable and try and deal with it as quickly and directly as they can, that could be avoiding a suit here,” he says.

Mark Pearson, author of the book Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued, also warned businesses need to be careful in their use of social media.

“All businesses need to realise that they are now publishers and are therefore subject to all media laws like defamation,” he says.

“For small business it reinforces the need to be very mindful and reflective in their use of social media so they need personnel monitoring their social media sites who are across media law and sound ethical practice,” he says.

Pearson recommends small business act within a reasonable time to remove any offensive or defamatory material.

“The reasonable time for such material to be removed would be a very small window of time,” he says.

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