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Wiser use of words

By Daphne Haneman - posted Monday, 31 March 2008

Opinion is life-affirming, pivotal. Some say it's healthy to have burning, well-versed views. Opinion can inform debate, resolve conflict, expose or head off environmental or social justice fiascos. And it is a human right to agree with or dispute an opinion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

But there's a public frontier where receiving and imparting opinion cuts too close to the wind of cruelty, a hideout where freedom of opinion buffers the freedom to abuse after a lucrative arrangement has rendered the law's camera axis virtually impotent.


If you yearn for a bit of a biff, nameless face-off or gratuitous violence, the web can slake your thirst.

Extreme behaviour, or flaming and "trolling", has historically been tolerated inside the web's nihilistic foxhole where the razor-sharp barbs of networked anarchy party.

The F-word sashays past misspelt fury that scuttles political correctness while an unrestrained, aliased proletariat commits virtual assault in the name of opinion.

Shadowy, unidentified online warriors hurl abuse, engage in free-form unhealthy hating, bullying and rancour; destroy a reputation here, vilify someone there; paralyse the truth or misrepresent it - it doesn't seem to matter and it's done with an undercover mouse-click via email, forums, websites and community networks.

Online comment has inflicted harm upon children, adults and businesses, and it is now vital to clarify the difference between opinion and abuse.

So when does online opinion swap hats with abuse? And at what point does abuse morph into defamation?


Often, according to legal opinion.

Internet abuse and unlawful stalking are covered under Australian defamation law and the Criminal Code. A legal expert said there had been numerous Australian and overseas cases relating to internet defamation and that "from experience, it is quite a common complaint".

Flaming or "trolling" become defamation when they identify a person and say something about that person that would cause an ordinary, reasonable individual to think less of him/her or to shun or avoid them. For example, if it is suggested that a person is incompetent then that would usually be defamatory, the legal expert said.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on March 26, 2008.

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About the Author

Daphne Haneman is a freelance journalist.

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