Dylan Voller, an Australian youth prisoner, is seen being abused in a Northern Territory detention center in 2015 during undercover news footage broadcast in 2016
Screenshot: ABC News/YouTube

An Australian Court has ruled that media organizations are liable for anything defamatory that’s published to the public Facebook pages of those media companies, even if it’s just posted by a random Facebook user.

The Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled today that Facebook pages controlled by the Australian media companies Fairfax, Nationwide News, and Sky News all contained defamatory content and that they should be held liable despite the fact that none of the news organizations published the content to Facebook themselves.

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Dylan Voller, an Aboriginal-Australian whose abuse at a youth detention facility was documented by Australia’s public broadcaster in 2016, brought the lawsuit against a number of Australian news organizations for content on their Facebook pages that was posted by third parties. Facebook commenters reportedly made false allegations that Voller had attacked a Salvation Army officer, leaving him blind in one eye.

Voller never asked for the comments on Facebook to be taken down, at least according to the media companies. Previously in Australia, publishers were only liable for comments in which the subject of the defamation had asked them to be removed but failed to do so.

The preliminary decision, written by Justice Stephen Rothman, ruled that responsibility for publication was “wholly in the hands of the media company that owns the public Facebook page.” The crux of Rothman’s judgment rested on the idea that the news organizations were money-making enterprises that were profiting from the encouragement of comments on their Facebook pages.

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“The primary purpose of the operation of the public Facebook page is to optimize readership of the newspaper (whether hardcopy or digital) or broadcast and to optimize advertising revenue,” Justice Rothman wrote. “The exchange of ideas on the public Facebook page is a mechanism (or one of the mechanisms) by which that is achieved.”

But representatives for the news organizations are shocked that they should be held liable for the comments of others on Facebook.

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“It defies belief that media organizations are held responsible for comments made by other people on social media pages,” a spokesperson for News Corp Australia told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“It is ridiculous that the media company is held responsible while Facebook, which gives us no ability to turn off comments on its platform, bears no responsibility at all. News Corp Australia is carefully reviewing the judgment with a view to an appeal.”

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As News Corp points out, the decision will likely be appealed to a higher court, but if it stands the ruling could have a chilling effect on speech in Australia. The nation of almost 30 million people is the only wealthy democracy in the world without some constitutional guarantee for freedom of expression.

“We are very happy with the judgment as it clarifies the law around social media platforms and paves the way for a broader understanding of how defamation proceedings can protect people in the context of new technology,” Voller’s attorney told the Sydney Morning Herald.

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