ZGeek case reminder defamation law applies to all forms of communication: expert
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ZGeek case reminder defamation law applies to all forms of communication: expert

The successful defamation action against online forum ZGeek serves as a reminder that posts on irreverent websites can still land publishers in hot water, a media law expert has said.

Queanbeyan lawyer Gabriella Jean Piscioneri won a libel case against the website in the ACT Supreme Court on Tuesday, almost a decade after forum contributors first attacked her for coming forward with explosive information about the infamous Sydney gang rape trials involving brothers Mohammed and Bilal Skaf.

Ms Piscioneri had received information that two jurors in the 2005 trial had conducted private investigations by visiting the scene of the rape of a teenage girl, despite a judge expressly telling them not to do so.

As she was obliged to do, the lawyer reported the information, and the brothers' convictions were quashed. They were later re-tried and re-sentenced for the crime.

But news of her actions prompted two discussion threads on ZGeek, one under the title of "Tool of the Week", the other "Bitching and Rants". Abusive posts appeared in both, although she was vindicated and defended by other users in the "Bitching and Rants" thread.

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ACT Supreme Court Justice John Burns ruled the "Tool of the Week" thread and later content published in 2010 were defamatory, and ordered the site to pay $82,000.

ZGeek's administrator and owner Anthony Scott Brisciani had argued his website was "silly", irreverent, not a "source of truth", and would not have been taken seriously.

The website used the defence of triviality, among others, but that was rejected by Justice Burns, who said it could not be used when the posts took on such a serious and aggressive tone.

University of Sydney media law expert David Rolph said the case served as a reminder to websites like ZGeek that defamation law applies equally to new media, even when content is published on pages that purport to be humorous.

"Defamation law doesn't draw a distinction between traditional and new media," Dr Rolph said.

"It's always worth emphasising that defamation applies to all forms of communication."

Justice Burns' decision further confirmed that the administrators of such sites can be held vicariously liable for content posted by other contributors.

Associate Professor Rolph said protections did exist in such cases, but they fall away when the administrator is shown to have knowledge of the defamatory material and not moderated or removed it.

Many cases have already explored the intersection between newer forms of media and defamation law, including several decisions on defamatory Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter.

Justice Burns' judgment also confirmed that posts on sites like ZGeek should not be considered individually, but rather in the context of the entire discussion thread.

Christopher Knaus is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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