Defamation: The Perils of Social Media and Email Communication in Strata

In the digital age, email and social media has become a powerful platform for individuals to express their thoughts and opinions. While it offers a great avenue for communication, it also presents potential risks, particularly when it comes to defamation. Defamation refers to the act of making false statements that harm the reputation of another person or organisation. For members of a body corporate in Queensland, it is crucial to exercise caution when engaging in discussions online and over email.

In this article, we will explore the potential pitfalls of social media and email communication and shed light on how seemingly innocuous comments can land you in trouble.

Understanding Defamation:

Defamation laws aim to strike a balance between protecting the right to freedom of expression and safeguarding an individual’s reputation. In Queensland, the Defamation Act 2005 governs defamation-related matters (provide link). To establish a defamation claim, three elements must be present: a false statement, publication to a third party, and harm to the reputation of the affected person or organisation. It is important to note that truth is a complete defence against a defamation claim.

Email:

Email is the prevailing medium through which defamatory publications occur in the context of a body corporate.

In 2018, the District Court of Queensland handled a case (link) involving an incident between two lot owners within a body corporate scheme. Subsequently, one owner sent an email to the committee and body corporate manager, complaining about the other owner’s behaviour.

The email falsely claimed that the owner had obstructed the sender, who had to forcefully make his way past, threatening physical harm if circumstances were different. However, CCTV footage revealed that the defendant’s account of events was untrue. The plaintiff did not impede the defendant, and in fact, the defendant exhibited an aggressive demeanour while the plaintiff appeared non-confrontational. The court determined that the email defamed the plaintiff by falsely accusing him of aggression and justifying the defendant’s inclination to resort to violence. Consequently, the court awarded the plaintiff $12,840 in damages.

More recently, the District Court of New South Wales [1] considered a case (link) in which an owner sent an email to 17 fellow owners in a strata scheme, questioning whether the committee had become a “Peeping Tom” committee.

The email arose from a complaint made by the owner’s tenant, who alleged that the chairperson had attempted to look through the windows. However, the chairperson was merely inspecting windows damaged during a storm. As a result of the email, the chairperson’s employer initiated an investigation, which promptly cleared him of any wrongdoing. The chairperson subsequently filed a lawsuit against the lot owner and was ultimately awarded $20,600 in damages, along with costs, by the District Court.

Any publication (whether in writing, pictures, video, or spoken) that may cause a person seeing or hearing it to think less of someone else may be defamatory.

The Power of Social Media:

Social media platforms have revolutionised the way we communicate, enabling users to share their thoughts and opinions instantly with a wide audience. However, this ease of sharing comes with potential risks. What may seem like a harmless comment or opinion shared on social media can quickly gain traction and cause significant harm. Once posted, content can be difficult to remove completely, and it may be shared, captured, or reposted without your knowledge or control.

Recently, a QLD woman was ordered to pay $280,000 after she was found to have made defamatory statements about her neighbours on Facebook accusing them of being paedophiles.

The Implications for Body Corporate Members:

Members of a body corporate are part of a collective entity responsible for managing and maintaining common property within a shared community. Engaging in discussions related to the body corporate on social media platforms is not uncommon, but it is essential to exercise caution and avoid making defamatory statements. Even seemingly innocuous comments can escalate into defamation claims if they harm the reputation of an individual or the body corporate itself.

Preventing Defamation:

To minimise the risk of engaging in defamatory behaviour on social media or other digital platforms, here are some key guidelines for body corporate members to follow:

  1. Think before you write: Take a moment to consider the potential impact of your words before sharing them online or in an email. Remember that once something is posted, it can have far-reaching consequences.
  2. Stick to the facts: Ensure that any statements you make are accurate, supported by evidence, and do not falsely portray an individual or the body corporate in a negative light.
  3. Respectful communication: Maintain a civil and respectful tone when engaging in discussions online. Avoid personal attacks, derogatory language, or offensive remarks.
  4. Develop a communications policy for your body corporate. If there is a Facebook or similar group ensure that it is monitored and moderated.
  5. Seek legal advice if in doubt: If you are uncertain about the potential consequences of a particular statement, consult a legal professional who specialises in defamation law to ensure you are in compliance with the relevant legislation.

 

Social media and email are powerful platforms for communication, but they also carry inherent risks, especially when it comes to defamation. Body corporate’s in Queensland must exercise caution when engaging in discussions online, ensuring that their statements do not harm the reputation of individuals or the collective entity itself. By adhering to guidelines for responsible online behaviour, body corporate members can protect themselves and maintain a respectful and positive online environment within their community. Remember, what you post today can have lasting consequences, so think twice before you hit that “post” button.

How Can We Help You?

Call us on 07 3435 5300 and one of our friendly consultants will help