SYDNEY - A landmark judgment in Australia that awarded A$105,000 (S$120,300) to a victim of abusive tweets and Facebook posts has served notice to trigger-happy social media users.
The damages were awarded after high school music teacher Christine Mickle sued a former student, Mr Andrew Farley, for defaming her in a series of comments on Twitter and Facebook in November 2012.
He was never taught by Ms Mickle, 58, but "bore a grudge" after she took over as head of the music and arts department at Orange High School from his father, who had left in 2008 for health reasons. In his messages, Mr Farley, who graduated in 2011, suggested Ms Mickle was responsible for his father leaving the school.
In the first such defamation case in Australia to reach a judgment, the District Court of New South Wales ruled that the social media messages had a "devastating effect" on the teacher.
Ms Mickle went on sick leave soon after the messages appeared and returned to work on a limited basis only late last year.
In a ruling that many social media users may find instructive - if not cautionary - Judge Michael Elkaim sounded a warning on the potential risks and pitfalls of social media. He found that messages can spread rapidly and that quickly written abusive posts can have an "evil" impact.
His decision was handed down in November last year but picked up by local media only last week.
"When defamatory publications are made on social media, it is common knowledge that they spread," Judge Elkaim said.
"They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication."
Analysts say the case is a reminder that defamation does not apply only to newspapers and the mass media but can also occur via a tweet or online post.
Associate Professor David Rolph, a media law expert at the University of Sydney, said many social media users "don't turn their mind" to the potential risks of their messages.
"Social media facilitates instantaneous conversation - it trades on the uninhibited exchanges of views," he told The Straits Times.
"If someone is sufficiently offended or resourced, they still have rights and can take action in the courts. I think most people do not think of that before they tweet or post something on Facebook."
In the case of Mr Farley, the court found he did little to rectify the damage and ignored an initial letter from Ms Mickle's lawyers in November 2012. He removed his claim and apologised "unreservedly" only after receiving a second letter a month later.
The judgment comes amid several other high-profile social media defamation cases in Australia. In one, former Labor MP Mike Kelly is being sued by two Liberal Party pollsters. He accused them of introducing "push polling" to Australia - a form of polling in which the questions are skewed to produce a desired outcome.
Legal commentator Richard Ackland said social media addicts often live in a "cocoon" and fail to appreciate the consequences of their actions. "The fact that every person now has the means to be a publisher doesn't mean that every person understands the responsibilities of being a publisher," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Mr Farley, declared a bankrupt after losing the suit, warned that "just because you think you're talking to your friends doesn't mean you're safe".
"It was a discussion between four of my friends and it was never meant for a public broadcast... I'm sorry it did go to the extent that it did," he told KOFM radio.
Dr Rolph said the case shows that social media users do not need to have many followers or a large audience to be sued. Mr Farley, who had about 50 Facebook friends and 60 Twitter followers when he sent the messages, said he has been depressed since the case. "It's all because of one comment on Facebook."
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