In years gone by, if someone had a complaint to make about something or someone, they would write a letter about it. Times have changed. These days you will typically find these complaints being made online through platforms such as Facebook. Such comments are often made without thinking through the consequences. A recent decision of the District Court of SA has highlighted the risks of posting comments about others online.
In Johnston v Aldridge, Mr Johnston brought defamation proceedings against Mr Aldridge about two Facebook posts Mr Aldridge posted. Among other things, the posts made assertions or allowed an inference to be drawn that Mr Johnston was a 'selfish, greedy man', 'a person of contemptible character' and that there had been threats of rape and death threats. In addition to the posts, there were a range of disparaging comments about Mr Johnston made by other people in response to the posts.
Not surprisingly, the Court determined that the Facebook posts made by Mr Aldridge were defamatory. More interestingly, the Court found the posts by the third parties on Mr Aldridge's Facebook page were not only defamatory, but that Mr Aldridge was liable for these posts. The Court found that by publishing the posts with a comments box attached, the defendant was providing a forum for people to post comments.
The cost to Mr Aldridge was significant - the Court awarded Mr Johnston damages in the sum of $100,000 which is quite a price to pay for two Facebook posts.
This case highlights the importance of stopping and taking a breath before you use social media to make comments about someone. More importantly, it also highlights that you could still be held responsible for defamatory posts simply by providing a forum for others to make comments about someone. Just because you didn't make the comment, it doesn't mean you will escape a penalty.