Tasmania is about to change its laws to enable large corporations to sue for defamation. We think this will have real impacts on people’s ability to participate in campaigns and protests to protect the environment.
Tasmania is about to change its laws to enable large corporations to sue for defamation. We think this will have real impacts on people’s ability to participate in campaigns and protests to protect the environment. These impacts could be nation-wide.
Defamation allows a person to sue if someone says something about them that harms their reputation, usually in a way that causes them economic loss. Currently, all defamation laws in Australia say that corporations with 10 or more employees cannot sue for defamation. The Tasmanian Government wants to change their defamation laws, so that in Tasmania all corporations can sue for defamation.
What we are really worried about is the misuse of these laws by big companies against individuals and not-for-profit groups. It is well-known that big, well-resourced businesses can, and have, used defamation laws as a way of shutting up those criticising them, whether that criticism is defamatory or not. Court cases cost a lot of money, and the possibility of having to come up with the money defend a large court case is enough to stop a lot of campaigners speaking out.
We saw this with the Gunns 20 case. This isn’t the only example of laws being used to stifle environmental campaigns. We have assisted lots of small groups who have been threatened with defamation when they have spoken out against people causing environmental harm.
The effect of defamatory laws is known as the ‘chilling effect’ because it tends to chill robust public discussions.
If Tasmania goes ahead with this, they will be the only state where large corporations can sue for defamation, meaning they will be out of step with the rest of the country. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a Tasmanian problem. These laws have the potential to affect campaigners and people speaking out against big corporations around the country.
This is because you can bring defamation proceedings in the jurisdiction where the defamatory material is read. So, if a big company wants to take action in relation to statements made on the internet that someone read in Tasmania, the company can use Tasmania’s laws to sue. That’s right – large companies across the country can sue in Tasmania, as long as the statement they claim is defamatory is read in Tasmania.
So, those of us who think that being able to criticise large and powerful corporations, and participate freely in public discussions is important in a democracy all need to be worried about what’s happening in Tasmania.