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Australian Court Rules Media Companies Responsible for Comments on their Facebook Pages

FILE - Dylan Voller speaks to the media during a press conference in Canberra, May 24, 2018. Australia's high court ruled, Sept. 8,2021, that the media groups are legally responsible as “publishers” for third parties’ comments on their Facebook pages.

Some of Australia's biggest media companies have lost a legal battle with a former youth detainee over allegedly defamatory comments posted about him on their Facebook pages. The high court has found the media groups are legally responsible as “publishers” for third parties’ comments on their Facebook pages.

Dylan Voller was held in youth detention in Australia’s Northern Territory. His treatment was the focus of a 2016 television documentary, which led to a wide-ranging inquiry into the mistreatment of inmates. Images of him shackled to a chair wearing a spit hood sparked outrage. They also prompted some Facebook users to make allegedly defamatory remarks about him on the media companies’ pages online.

As a result, Voller wants to sue several Australian media companies.

The case has been held up by a separate legal dispute over whether the outlets were the publishers of users’ comments.

The High Court, Australia’s highest court, Wednesday found they were because in setting up a public Facebook page and posting content, the media groups had allowed and encouraged comments from the platform’s users.

The judges said it did not matter that the companies deleted the messages after becoming aware of them.

A spokesperson for Australia’s Nine Network, which is one of the companies involved, said, “we are obviously disappointed with the outcome as it will have ramifications for what we can post on social media in the future.”

Voller’s lawyer, Peter O’Brien, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Voller is relieved the long legal fight, or “stoush,” in Australian parlance, is over.

“I spoke to Dylan this morning. He is obviously elated at the decision. It has been a long legal stoush. People who might be vulnerable to social media mob attacks - they are protected.”

The High Court decision clears the way for Voller to continue his legal action against high-profile newspapers - The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian - and others, including broadcaster Sky News.

The defamation case will continue later in the New South Wales state Supreme Court. A trial there will decide whether the Facebook comments did, in fact, defame the former youth detention inmate.