According to Brian Martin, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, the law of defamation hinders free speech and protects powerful people from scrutiny. He actively investigates “suppression of dissent” and writes articles on his findings. In his informative leaflet, Defamation law and free speech, which can be found on his website, he focuses on providing information and options for people who may be threatened by legal action or who may be worried about something they want to say. Martin defines defamation as anything that injures a person’s reputation. “If a comment brings a person into contempt, disrepute or ridicule it is likely to be defamatory,” he says.
His list of potentially incriminating actions include telling your friends your boss is discriminating against you, writing a letter to a media publication stating a politician is dishonest or selling a book containing defamatory material. “The fact is, nearly everyone makes defamatory statements almost every day,” Martin says. “Only very rarely does someone use the law of defamation against such statements.”
If a defamation claim is made against you, Martin suggests focusing on whether you have a right to say something instead of if it is defamatory or not. Your defence can be on various grounds including speaking the truth, the duty to provide information or expressing an opinion, Martin says. He also suggests ways to avoid defamation in the first place, by stating facts and not the conclusion. “Instead of saying “The politician is corrupt,” it is safer to say “The politician failed to reply to my letter” or “The politician received a payment of $100,000 from the developer,” Martin says.
Other ways to avoid defamation include producing and distributing material anonymously, sending what you intend to publish directly to the people who might sue you for it or criticising a person to their face. Martin says defamation only occurs when the comments are heard or read by a “third person”.
As an advocate for the use of petition, street stalls and public meetings to directly challenge the use of defamation laws against free speech, Martin says defamation actions and threats to sue for defamation are often used to try and silence those who criticise people with power and money. He believes our right to free speech is important because it ensures the free flow of ideas and the preservation of democracy.