Tasmanian Liberals Dump Anti-Activist Defamation Laws

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The Tasmanian government will scrap legislation that would have allowed corporations to sue for defamation, Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin announced today.

The government had planned to reverse changes made in 2005 by the then Labor government which prevent companies with more than ten employees from suing over false and misleading claims.

“Last week I discussed this with my Cabinet colleagues and it was determined Tasmania won't be in a position to proceed with the proposed changes,” Goodwin said this morning.

“My conversations to date with my interstate colleagues, and broader issues raised by community stakeholders, indicates there isn't national consensus for altering the uniform law.”

The laws, which would have paved the way for corporations to sue individuals for defamation, had been roundly condemned by groups such as the Tasmanian Law Society, Environmental Defenders Office and Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

The Tasmanian Liberal government had argued that activist groups’ “false and misleading campaigns” were costing jobs in industries such as forestry and mining.

But this morning Goodwin flagged “unintended consequences of forum shopping” — where corporations could sue for defamation under Tasmanian legislation, even in respect of actions that had nothing to do with Tasmania – as a key reason for the decision to scrap the proposal.

She also indicated that other states had signalled they would not support national uniform changes in line with those her government had proposed.

The Tasmanian Law Society had also expressed concerns about Tasmania “going it alone and having laws out of step with [the rest of]the country,” the organisation’s President Mathew Verney said.

He said the laws would have been “unmanageable”, and would have opened the door for corporations to sue journalists and social media users operating outside of Tasmania.

Under the proposed changes, a business like Urban Spoon, which operates by allowing users to comment and rate restaurants, could have been sued by a franchise with more than 10 employees if a member of the public posted defamatory comments to the site.

The Labor party had been highly critical of the proposal, with leader Bryan Green slamming it as a “draconian” “attack on free speech”.

“Just as the protest laws failed because they went too far, the Government’s plan for change in defamation law is over the top,” Green said.

Last year Tasmania introduced tough anti-protestor legislation which beefed up police move-on powers, adopted a broad definition of ‘protesting’ and ramped up fines.

But the Liberal government — faced with a hostile upper house and concerned advocacy and civil liberty groups — was forced to compromise on their original, harsher legislation.

Despite today’s back down on their plan to change the Defamation Act, Goodwin maintained that “the Liberal government has shown that we are prepared to stand up for our resources industries”.

New Matilda

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