A Griffith councillor who says she’s been the target of defamatory comments online says she encourages council to explore its legal options.
Cr Anne Napoli has been forced to defend herself after comments were made on a Griffith social media page alleging ratepayers had footed the bill her family’s travel expenses after Cr Napoli attended a local government conference.
The page made specific reference to Cr Napoli’s husband, son and her son’s carer. She says people need to check facts before posting on social media.
“They should check their facts before they start printing anything. I did go away, but there was no cost to the ratepayer, not for my husband or my son,” she said.
“I know my responsibility toward my community. It’s slander. It’s defaming.”
Griffith City Council has since confirmed the accusations made by the social media page are untrue.
“I thought I was going to explode through the roof. You wonder what the community is going to think about it?” Mrs Napoli said.
Defamation and social media
The matter has raised questions about allegations of defamation in the social media age. The controversy comes a month after a push to update defamation laws by NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman.
"It is important all Australian jurisdictions work closely to ensure we strike the right balance between freedom of expression, publication of material in the public interest and protecting individual's reputations," he said.
The potential reform would see authors, rather than online hosts and websites, take responsibility for defamatory material. It could also see claims means-tested for damage before determining how they would be dealt with.
President of the NSW Law Society Doug Humphreys says there is great need for reform.
“The area of law is very complex. One of the areas we’ve faced is, technology has gone ahead in leaps and bounds and the law hasn’t necessarily kept up with it,” he said.
He says with a large number of defamation cases clogging the court system, it could be time to look for another way to deal with them. Mr Humphreys suggests arbitration – given the ability to give legally binding directions for an apology or to restrict similar material in the future – could be a viable option.
“At the end of the day, courts are a very valuable resource. Do we want them to be cluttered up with trivial matters? Do we want a situation whereby we deal with them another way?” he said.
“We need something that is quick and cheap … If we have a matter dealt with quickly, some of the damage might be mitigated.”
Mr Humphreys also touched on the often-anonymous nature of social media. In his opinion, the right to free speech also comes with responsibility.
“What this comes down to is all about trying to strike a balance between free speech, the right to criticise people who take on public office and the right of people not to have their reputation publicly damage by malicious commentary,” he said.
“In my view, freedom of speech also has a requirement for responsibility to own up to that … Should someone whose reputation been seriously damaged be able to go to Google or Facebook and get them to hand over the IP address?”
Where to from here?
In the meantime, Griffith mayor John Dal Broi says council are investigating the social media pages, but says authorship is “difficult to prove”.
“I have no time for those comments at all … We've sought legal advice and gone to police.”
He also confirmed Griffith City Council had formally complained to host-site Facebook.
“To make comment about her son or to suggest he is incapacitated says a lot about the quality of the people making these posts,” Cr Dal Broi said.
Cr Napoli also had a strong message for anyone who viewed people with a disability as “incapacitated”.
“To anyone with a disability, I want you to know you are important and valued members of our local community.”