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Businessman held liable for defamatory comments posted by social media followers

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Johnston v Aldridge–Businessman held liable for defamatory comments posted by social media followers



The Facts


A South Australian businessman has recently been ordered to pay $100,000 in damages for defamatory remarks posted not only by himself on social media, but also for comments made by followers on his post.  



Mr Aldridge, a businessman and former political candidate, had previously sought to have his pop-up fruit and vegetable market relocated. While the local council approved his request, it was appealed by the owner of several nearby fruit and vegetable stores, Mr Johnston.



Angered by Mr Johnston’s appeal and subsequent refusal to contact him, Mr Aldridge made several posts on Facebook complaining of Mr Johnston’s behavior and calling on his followers to boycott his stores. Mr Johnston then brought defamation proceedings to court challenging two of Mr Aldridge’s Facebook posts, as well as various comments posted by Mr Aldridge’s followers.



The law on ‘secondary publishing’



The proceedings in relation to the followers’ comments are of particular interest, as Mr Aldridge is essentially being held liable for what others have written. This is because, as publisher of the post, he is said to be a ‘secondary publisher’ of the comments. Secondary publishing refers to parties who are not authors of the content, but ‘participate’ in its publication. Secondary publishers can be liable for defamation if they knew, or ought to have known, had they exercised reasonable diligence, that the defamatory material had been published.



Arguments and findings


In response to the defamation claim, Mr Aldridge argued that there were too many comments (190 pages of them in total) to be controlled. He argued it would have been too inconvenient, and politically inexpedient, to monitor the page and delete all defamatory comments.



However, the court disagreed – while it may have been inconvenient to monitor the comments, it was not unrealistic or unreasonable. Furthermore, the court added, political expedience is no defence to defamation. As a result, Mr Aldridge was held liable not only for his own defamatory remarks, but also for those of his followers.


Take-home message for businesses on social media


This decision serves as a reminder to businesses to monitor comments posted on their social media channels in search of defamatory material, as they may be liable for such comments. The court has made it clear that pleading ignorance, or otherwise inconvenience, will not suffice to avoid liability.