A warning to all bloggers and commenters

Joe Karam, a former New Zealand All Black, has just been awarded over half a million New Zealand dollars in a defamation case. The defendants were two individuals who posted defamatory comments about Mr Karam on Facebook and another website.

A bit of background: Joe Karam is a long-time supporter of David Bain, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his family in 1995 but after an appeal through the Privy Council in 2007, was retried and acquitted of all charges. Joe Karam played a pivotal role in Bain’s campaign to prove his innocence.

The whole David Bain saga really polarised New Zealand. Everyone here seemed to have very strong views about whether he was innocent or not. It reminded me a bit of Lindy Chamberlain in Australia, who in 1980 was accused of murdering her baby. It turned out a dingo took it.

Some people in New Zealand became quite angry about David Bain’s retrial as they felt certain of his guilt (note that I was not one of them!). This prompted heated online discussions and some websites and Facebook groups were created in response. Because of Joe Karam’s role in David Bain’s acquittal, much of this anger was directed at him; defamatory statements were made; and Joe Karam sued two individuals and an online trading site for defamation.

Fast forward to now and the judge has just ruled in favour of Joe Karam and identified 50 defamatory statements. One of them was a play on Karam’s name – “Karamalisation” – and was used to accuse of him of fabricating facts: “Karamalisation equals to ‘fudge the facts”‘. Another post compared Karam’s defence of David Bain to Nazi propaganda. Most of the statements accused Joe Karam of dishonesty, fraud and lack of integrity. This reminds me so much of climate science and the defamatory statements I read almost daily about climate scientists.

Good for Joe Karam, I say. But what does this mean for bloggers and online commenters? It’s really very simple. Don’t make defamatory statements, especially when they’re false or if you can’t prove them. One mistake made by the defendants in this case was to use the defence of truth, which they could not prove, and which increased the damages against them. I think this is what is known as punitive damages.

People should not think they’re safe just because they run small and/or unknown blogs. It’s true that exposure is taken into account in these cases – I believe the legal term is “extent of publication”. But all that is required is for mainstream media to pick up your comment and publish it which is exactly what happened in this case. It doesn’t take long for things to spread online.