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Google ordered to pay $715k for defamation against John Barilaro

Judge Steven Rares of the Federal Court has found that Google’s actions in posting and reposting hate speech against a politician to be “improper and unjustifiable”.

user iconSimon Levett 07 June 2022 The Bar
John Barilaro
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Claims for free speech have always been tempered by the need to prohibit racist, inflammatory hate speech even against a politician. The Court stated that “the right to criticise is not a licence to vilify, cyber bully, direct hate speech at, or make baseless attacks, on anyone, even a high profile and controversial politician”.

John Barilaro was the Deputy Premier of NSW and the leader of the State Parliamentary National Party from 15 November 2016.

He was compelled to take a four week’s mental health leave on 18 September 2020 and ultimately resigned from his high position in public office because of the attacks.

 
 

Rares J found that “Mr Barilaro had been the subject of a relentless, racist, vilifactory, abusive and defamatory campaign conducted on YouTube, a platform operated by Google LLC.”

The primary individual conducting the defamatory speech was known by the name of Jordan Shanks, also known as FriendlyJordies. Some of the accusations which were made online were that Mr Barilaro was corrupt, that he had committed perjury and that he had engaged in blackmailing of councilors. Other comments were outright racist in tone and subject. The lawyers of Barilaro were attacked.

Although Google claimed that it had distanced itself from Mr Shanks, it left the documents online and did nothing to take them down. Google was making large amounts of money from leaving the stories online.

Google acted contrary to their own policies including breaching international law. The Court stated that “I found that Google did not apply its own policies because it did nothing to prevent Mr Shanks’ hate speech, cyberbullying and harassment of Mr Barilaro in the videos he published as part of his campaign on Youtube”.

On 28 October 2021, the parties participated in a mediation. Yet, Mr Shanks continued to post inflammatory material on the Internet. In particular, a video was posted insinuating that Mr Barilaro’s lawyers were involved in corruption. On 20 January 2022, Google’s solicitors argued that the video did not amount to contempt of court.

Ultimately, the Federal Court ordered on 6 June 2022 that Google pay Mr Barilaro the amount of $715,000 in compensation.

Google was liable despite its efforts to distance itself from the conduct of Mr Shanks. Rares J held that “it has been the law for over a century that everyone who participates in the publication of defamatory material is liable as a publisher jointly with all the others.”

The court called for further parliamentary reform. Rares J held that “the ability of social media entities to publish and enable the communication of such material without constraint is a matter that the Parliament ought to consider addressing.”