Australia Defamation Case Signals a Crackdown on Ordinary Citizens, Critics Say

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia’s defense minister on Wednesday won a defamation case over a six-word tweet that called him a “rape apologist.”

Critics and experts said the court case exemplified the conservative government’s heavy-handed approach toward regulating damaging commentary on social media — what Prime Minister Scott Morrison called “a coward’s palace.” The case also represented a troubling shift as politicians bring more lawsuits against ordinary citizens, they said.

The dispute began when Shane Bazzi, an advocate for refugees who has 13,000 Twitter followers, wrote a Twitter post in February about Peter Dutton, then the country’s home affairs minister and now the defense minister.

“Peter Dutton is a rape apologist,” the tweet said, and linked to an article about comments Mr. Dutton had made that women seeking asylum in Australia used rape claims as an excuse to enter the country.

The post was published on the same day that Mr. Dutton also used the phrase “she said, he said” in reference to explosive accusations by Brittany Higgins, a former government staff member, who said she had been sexually assaulted in Australia’s Parliament House.

Mr. Dutton began defamation proceedings soon after, saying that the post had “deeply offended” him and had wrongly suggested he condoned and excused rape. Mr Bazzi’s blue Twitter check mark, Mr. Dutton also argued, implied recognition by the social media giant and had led the minister to believe that the post was not just the “rant of somebody randomly on Twitter.”

A spokeswoman for Twitter did not immediately respond to an email on Wednesday seeking comment.

Justice Richard White ruled in a judgment handed down on Wednesday that the tweet had, indeed, been defamatory. Justice White also rejected Mr. Bazzi’s defense that he had expressed his honest opinion, saying that neither the article about Mr. Dutton nor the “she said, he said” statement supported the conclusion that Mr. Dutton excused rape.

“Mr. Bazzi may have used the word ‘apologist’ without an understanding of the meaning he was, in fact, conveying,” Justice White said. “If, as I think likely, Mr. Bazzi did not appreciate the effect of his words, it would follow that he did not hold the opinion actually conveyed by the words.”

The court ordered Mr. Bazzi to pay Mr. Dutton 35,000 Australian dollars (about $25,000) in damages.

Mr. Bazzi said on Twitter that he was “very disappointed” with the ruling and would be taking time to consider his options. Mr. Dutton did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment; nor did Mr. Bazzi’s lawyer.

The case’s outcome was not unheard-of in a country with notoriously strict defamation laws, but it was unusual that the defendant was not another politician or a high-profile journalist, said Michael Douglas, a senior lecturer in private law at the University of Western Australia.

“It’s consistent with the theme that this government is content in taking a very heavy-handed approach to online speech that it doesn’t like,” he said. He added, “Cases like these are a warning that, unless something changes, we’re going to see more and more cases like this, and every Australian should tread carefully before they do a quote retweet and call a politician a name.”

Mr. Dutton has been open about his intent to crack down on misleading or defamatory social media content. In March, he told a local radio station, “Some of these people who are trending on Twitter or have the anonymity of different Twitter accounts, they’re out there putting out all these statements and tweets that are frankly defamatory — I’m going to start to pick out some of them to sue.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed that sentiment in October, when he vowed that the government would do more to hold social media giants accountable.

“Social media has become a coward’s palace, where people can just go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things to people and do so with impunity,” Mr. Morrison said.

In May, John Barilaro, then the deputy premier of New South Wales, sued an Australian YouTuber, Jordan Shanks, for defamation, claiming that two videos Mr. Shanks had uploaded incorrectly suggested he was corrupt, had committed perjury and engaged in blackmail. He also said Mr. Shanks had been racist by attacking his Italian heritage, including calling him a “con man to the core, powered by spaghetti.”

Mr. Shanks’s channel, FriendlyJordies, which has 600,000 subscribers, is known for its comedy and political commentary.

The case was settled out of court this month, according to local news reports. Mr. Shanks apologized to Mr. Barilaro, paid $100,000 in court costs and edited the two videos.

In October and November, Andrew Laming, a Liberal member of Parliament, sent a series of defamation warnings to organizations and individuals — including an advocacy organization for older women and a social policy professor — over their social media posts about him. In March, the local news media reported allegations that Mr. Laming had taken “upskirting” photos of a woman. It later emerged that the woman had been wearing shorts with her underwear visible, not a skirt, and the police concluded no crime had been committed, though he apologized for taking the photos without the woman’s consent.

Nina Funnell, a journalist, said the government’s approach “sets a very unhealthy tone for our democracy if people can’t criticize elected officials without risk of serious financial repercussions.” Ms. Funnell started a legal-defense fund for those who had received defamation notices, which has raised more than $200,000.

She said the discrepancy in resources and power between the politicians and people they were suing amounted to “asymmetric warfare.”

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