Landmark ruling on web defamation

10 Dec 2002

A court in Australia has delivered a groundbreaking decision that online publishers can be sued for defamation from any country in the world, regardless of where the offending article was written.

The court ruled that an Australian businessman has the right to sue for defamation over an article published in the US and posted on the internet.

An appeal by international news service, Dow Jones, to stop the case by millionaire mining magnate, Joseph Gutnick, was unanimously dismissed.

The court is allowing the case to go ahead in Mr Gutnick’s home town of Victoria, where there are strict defamation laws and defendants are not able to invoke the US first amendment right to free speech.

The article in question was published in Barron’ magazine, which is a Dow Jones financial publication as well as on the internet.

Today’s ruling could set a precedent affecting publishers and internet sites accessible in the 190 countries that permit defamation cases.

It means the Gutnick can now sue the New York based Dow Jones in his home state.

He claimed that a 7,000 word article that appeared in the online version of Barron defamed him as a schemer given to scams, money laundering and fraud.

However, the ruling made no decision on the case itself. Gutnick will have to pursue that in Victoria’s supreme court.

Lawyers for the publication argue that allowing Gutnik to sue in Australia, could see anything published online subject to legal action in countries and have a huge affect on free speech.

They said: “The result means that Dow Jones will defend those proceedings in a jurisdiction which is far removed from the country in which the article was prepared and where the vast bulk of Barron’s readership resides.”

Gutnick argued the case should be heard in his home town, Melbourne as people there were able to access the internet to read the article — thereby defaming him where he is best known. The judges dismissed Dow Jones’ contention that it would have to consider the defamation laws from “Afghanistan to Zimbabwe” in every article published on the internet.

Its understood the ruling means that material published online can be considered to have been published in any place it is read online and not just the country of origin.

Dow Jones were supported by a number of other media heavyweights such as News Corp, Bloomberg, Reuters and CNN.

By Suzanne Byrne