Dear Tasmania, please stop. You’re stuffing everything up.
It seems that primary industries in Tasmania hold the government in a vice-like grip. First they persuaded the government that it should pass Draconian antiprotesting laws late last year. Now, they’ve also convinced the government that it’s a good idea to try to unwind uniform national defamation laws and legislate an action for corporate defamation in Tasmania.
Industry players want to fix a legal loophole by which there is not much legal recourse for companies when environmental campaigners peddle misinformation. Unlike the companies, the environmentalists are not usually liable for misleading or deceptive conduct under the Competition and Consumer Act. And there is (currently) no defamation action available to corporations with more than ten employees anywhere in Australia.
But changing Tasmanian defamation laws is not the answer. It will stuff up defamation for the whole country.
Ten years ago all the state governments enacted uniform defamation laws around Australia. Uniformity in defamation laws is actually super important, especially in the days of internet publications and national news. That’s because the law says that you can potentially face a defamation action anywhere that a defamatory publication is read. For defamation plaintiffs, that means they can often choose to sue in the place with the most favourable laws.
On the internet, plaintiffs might choose from any number of local and foreign jurisdictions.
If Tasmania changes its laws to allow corporate defamation, it’s going to become one of the most plaintiff-friendly defamation jurisdictions around. It won’t just see an increase in actions from Tasmanian plaintiffs. It will see a massive influx of actions from other parts of Australia and even the rest of the world. It renders uniformity between the other states useless.
Being a hot defamation destination is not a good thing. The courts get jammed with foreign and trivial claims. Wealthy companies use the legal system to bully defendants into settlements or run them into bankruptcy. The chilling effect on free speech rapidly outweighs the public interest in protecting people against serious defamation.
These consequences go well beyond the government’s intention to fix the loophole for environmentalists. The government needs to rethink this. Corporate defamation in Tasmania is a really, really bad idea.