Volume 8, Issue 10
The LSS social media policy has proved contentious. There are those who see it as an appropriate response to hurtful speech, and those who see it as problematic since it is overly prescriptive.
I am hesitant about restrictions on free speech. Restrictions on speech tend to protect the rich and powerful. Richard Ackland, for example, has noted in The Guardian in his discussion of speech-laws in Australia that, “it is the legal bills that force public interest defendants to roll over and shut up. The outcome is a frightful timidity in public discussion of issues that ought to be publicly critiqued."
Similarly, Deane J wrote in his minority judgment (at para ) in Theophanous that the cost of defending defamation suits have the result that
“the informed citizen who is not foolish or impecunious will inevitably be deterred from making, repeating, or maintaining a statement which causes injury to the reputation of another if there be a perceived risk or actual threat that the publication or further publication of the statement or a refusal to retract it will give rise to defamation proceedings. And that will be so even if the defamatory statement is known or believed to be true.”
The LSS social media policy may do the same here. It was put in place following comments made on a Facebook post on one of the JD pages regarding the suggestion that a woman’s room be created in the law school.
It was the alleged vilification of men, and not women, however, which led the Law School to have De Minimis take down an article on the issue. On the other hand, many women defended the open and frank discussion which occurred. After the decision by the LSS to remove the post, Teresa Gray, for example, made the following insightful comment:
“I realise this is a decision that you would have considered seriously. But I disagree that the perceived benefit of removing that particular thread outweighs the negative impact of doing so.
Every single person who commented was aware that they had the option of providing anonymous feedback via the form, and chose to comment instead, in the knowledge that their words would be read by around 400 people.
The conversation as it unfolded was circular and reductive in some ways, but I think ultimately productive. Interesting and impassioned discussions came out of it and it seems a lot of minds were changed. These kinds of divisive conversations provide the potential to educate each other about our differing experiences of the world.
I have no doubt that there was some harm done by the thread and it's possible that that harm actually outweighed the good that was done. But removing the thread is not going to remedy that harm.
It's going to undo any progress that was made in listening to each other and it increases the likelihood that we will continue to have the same conversations over and over without progressing (because these issues of inequality, sexism and harassment are not going to go away just because there is now no record that we talked about them)…”
As Leo Bailey wrote last week, the LSS social media policy stipulates a “high threshold for acceptable communication”. I am wary about such policies, particularly since the LSS relies heavily on corporate funding.
Last year, this amounted to close to $150,000, and such heavy reliance may play into decisions about what comments contravene the social media policy. For example, article or opinions posted about corporate sponsors may be removed out of fear that the sponsor will take offence and withdraw funding. As Leo notes, “trolling” is open to wide interpretation.
I happen to agree with him that “an attempt by the LSS via the Social Media Policy to sanitise online discourse comes across as authoritarian, and raises the suggestion of a conformist project.”
I recognise that this is a difficult area but I think it is appropriate to take a conservative approach to this issue. I would guard against introducing new and untried social media policies the effects of which are unclear.
The burden of proof should be on those who argue that it is necessary to introduce censorship.
Duncan Wallace is the Managing Editor of De Minimis
Articles on the same issue: