Media organisations are affected by defamation laws. Sometimes they are sued, but more importantly they avoid stories that might open them to legal action. There is also another, less well known side to defamation law: individuals may be threatened or sued, often with the effect of inhibiting free speech.In 1996, shortly after becoming president of Whistleblowers Australia, I wrote a leaflet titled ÃÂ¿Defamation law and free speech,ÃÂ¿ designed to explain defamation law to whistleblowers and others who might be worried about libel and slander. This turned out to be a very useful piece of writing: it now receives more hits on my website than anything else IÃÂ¿ve written.Running my website on suppression of dissent led to new experiences with defamation. The Vice-Chancellor of Adelaide University demanded that a document on my site, about a professor who lost his job, be removed, because of defamation. I removed the document but notified a number of free-speech supporters elsewhere who put the document on their sites; I then put links to those sites. The Internet offers a new tactic against defamation threats: ensure that the material is widely reproduced, so legal action, rather than hiding the material, actually makes it more well known. This is, in essence, a sort of ÃÂ¿defamation haven,ÃÂ¿ analogous to tax havens.Because my defamation leaflet was so widely read, over the years I received ever more queries, mostly from people being threatened or sued or worried about the possibility. This allowed me to be better informed and offer better advice.The Internet is a new arena for defamation threats and defences, but with quite a different topography. The ground is tilting towards free speech, as long as people can learn to take advantage of the opportunities.
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