Keith Wheeler’s Wheeler’s Wisdom | OPINION, April 17, 2017

I was in the canteen at the old Base Hospital. Behind me were three women, loudly discussing a colleague.

“She didn’t talk to us. She wrote it on her Facebook page. It’s all lies,” the woman said. The others agreed, and planned their own Facebook revenge.

What might the consequences have been if this dispute had turned nasty?

In a timely way, perhaps the current controversy about Facebook posts in Wagga brings to everyone’s attention the possibility of legal liability.

I trust that the Administrator of any Facebook page that attracts controversial comments appreciates that they are the legal entity who could be sued.

Financial loss incurred by a person or business, reputational damage that could affect the standing of the person or business in the community, or outright defamation could bring lawyers to your door. 

If I were the editor of a Facebook forum, insurance would be one of my first considerations. Lawyers could extract very substantial damages from you, the administrator, in a court case. 

I noted that Facebook removed the post. Facebook understands how the law works.

When Wagga barrister Matthew Hogg warned of defamation issues with social media, and mentions allowing the forum to be used to attack people, he is right to remind contributors that they can be made accountable for their comments.

Solicitor Graham Burmeister mentioned Section 18c in his comments. The Queensland case where online comments by university students, that they probably thought were witty and harmless in the heat of the moment, became part of a case that cost a couple of the students $5,000 upfront to make the case go away.

The students who defended in court won their case, but could have been up for $250,000 in legal costs!

If crowd funding had not come to their aid they could have been in debt for the rest of their lives! In 18c cases, a Government body has money, whereas you can’t afford to defend yourself!

With online comments, it is not just Riverina residents who comment, as was implied in the DA’s story. People hide behind their online persona.

No matter where they claim to live, the commenter could come from anywhere in the world. There are people who love to be nasty - trolls - but the Administrator who allows the troll’s comment could be left wearing the legal liability, even though tracing online posts has become much more sophisticated.

A disturbing trend is teachers facing malicious attacks. Mere insults can be shrugged off, but reputational damage is quite another matter. Online bloggers who try this trick need to be aware that the Teachers’ Federation provides legal assistance to members defamed in this way.

Even if the matter does not come to court the defamer can expect a penalty, from loss of face in having to offer a very public apology, to a financial settlement. Unfounded allegations cannot be broadcast.

Facebook can be an excellent tool for families or friends to keep in touch. Used for nastiness and revenge, it morphs into just another American intrusion into our once forgiving and happy Australian character.

Australia has moved so far away from the Easter message. At Jesus’ crucifixion, He said in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was giving us the ultimate lesson in forgiving those who would do us wrong.

KEITH WHEELER, www.dailyadvertiser.com.au