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Not a tweet out of freedom czar Tim Wilson

Where's our freedom commissioner when we need him? Tim Wilson, human rights and free speech champion, surely should have something to say about the lad who has been lumbered with a $105,000 damages verdict for speaking his mind, via Twitter and Facebook, about a music teacher at Orange High School?

The things Andrew Farley posted about Christine Mickle must have been pretty awful because judge Michael Elkaim, in his damages judgment, felt he couldn't repeat them. Citizens looking for someone to unlock our suppressed thoughts quite justifiably might be confused by Wilson's utterances on the topic of free speech.

When it comes to racist outbursts, people should be ''open about their prejudices'', the human rights commissioner told baffled Lateline viewers. In this way, others can then line up and ''shine a bright light into dark corners and to expose people for their discrimination''. The law should only apply to stop government being discriminatory but should not interfere with the right of private individuals to be vile.

By an equally interesting process of reasoning, Wilson sees a person's reputation as ''a property right'', which suggests it might be traded or exchanged. Naturally, to anyone who hails from the Institute of Public Affairs, property rights are sacrosanct and must be protected. Speech restricted by defamation law, therefore, is OK but racial discrimination law is not, unless it is aimed at government.

Not much help there for those at the intersection of tweeting fingers and wayward thoughts.

However, in Wilson World, if Farley had launched a racist rant against Mickle on social media, that should be beyond the law and up to citizens to rally and shine lights on the misguided youth. I think we're in for a whacko time with this freedoms tsar.


But back to social media, defamation and reputation. The fact that every person now has the means to be a publisher doesn't mean that every person understands the responsibilities of being a publisher. There appears to be a naive belief that you can say what you like on social media platforms and that defamation laws, fairness and fact-checking are for big, rich publishers and broadcasters.

What we see is a cocoon occupied by social media addicts where they know everything but nothing.

You'd have thought the penny would have dropped well before now. After all, there have been quite a number of cases where people have sued for defamatory tweets or Facebook posts.

Farley was on Newcastle radio on Thursday warning people to be ''really careful'' about social media.

''Just because you think you're talking to your friends doesn't mean you're safe,'' he said.

But the same warning was issued in October last year by Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, after she was successfully sued by a former Conservative Party bag man, Lord McAlpine. After a BBC Newsnight program that linked a ''senior Conservative'' to sex abuse claims, Bercow tweeted: ''Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.'' After a secret damages agreement, she said through her lawyer: ''Mrs Bercow wishes and hopes that, as a result of this matter, other Twitter users will behave more responsibly in how they use that platform.''

There was the hard fought English case brought by former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns against Lalit Modi, the ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League. Modi, in January 2010, tweeted that the New Zealander was involved in match fixing. The tweet was estimated to have been read by between 35 and 95 followers. Damages of £90,000 were awarded and Modi's appeal was dismissed in November 2012.

It's not as though we've been without these sorts of cases. In Adelaide, in 2012, a magistrate awarded $40,000 to a former principal at an outback school over a defamatory Facebook page created by two parents of students.

Pollsters and political advisers Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor still have their case grinding through the Federal Court over a tweet from former Labor MP Mike Kelly, alleging they were involved in ''push-polling''.

In Canberra, Immigration Department public servant Michaela Banerji made critical tweets as @LALegale about the department and the government's immigration policies. She unsuccessfully brought a case in the Federal Circuit Court to stop the department sacking her on the ground that she had an implied freedom of political communication.

As Americans are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The New York Times v Sullivan, the great free speech and free press case, and the British have just enacted sweeping and generally liberating libel law reforms, what beckons for little old us? Not much, apparently, if we're stuck with a freedoms advocate who thinks that reputation should be protected because it is a property right.

Twitter: @JustinianNews


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