The Tasmanian Government has announced it is committed to its election policy of changing laws to allow businesses to sue protesters for defamation. The Tasmanian Attorney-General, Vanessa Goodwin, issued a press release in which she stated that “work is progressing on this matter” and that the Government remains committed to the plan. The controversial move follows last year’s introduction of the Workplaces (Protection From Protesters) Act 2014 (Tas), which strengthened anti-workplace protest laws so that people protesting at mining or forestry sites and “obstructing business activity” could face significant fines and potential jail terms. That Act had to be watered down after its provisions including mandatory minimum jail sentences were widely criticised and attracted the attention of the United Nations.
Dr Goodwin said the changes to defamation laws were necessary because:
“there are radical environmental groups who make a hobby of spreading misinformation to markets with the aim of destroying Tasmanian jobs. Unlike the former Labor-Green government, we will stand up for Tasmanian jobs every day of the week.”
She also said in the press release that a previous campaign against timber company Ta Ann resulted in the loss of 40 Tasmanian jobs.
Although no draft legislation has been tabled, the changes would make Tasmania the only state that permits defamation actions to be taken by corporations. Business Insider Australia notes that:
“National universal defamation laws came into effect in 2006 and while corporations are unable to sue for defamation, they can still sue for injurious falsehood when a misleading statement has a financial impact on the company.
Environmental activist Jonathan Moylan was given a 20-month suspended prison sentence in the NSW Supreme Court last year after pleading guilty to disseminating false or misleading information.”
Prior to the national changes, the Tasmanian forestry corporation Gunns sued former Greens leader Bob Brown and 20 other environmental activists for defamation, claiming $6.3 million in damages they said stemmed from loss of income during protests. Business Insider Australia described the case as a “PR nightmare” for Gunns, who eventually dropped many of the claims and had to pay legal costs, before settling the rest out of court, and going into voluntary administration two years later.
The president of the Tasmania Law Society, Matthew Verney, told The Guardian Australia he believed that from what he had heard, he believed the changes would be “very draconian” and “impinged on people’s ability to speak freely”:
“Ostensibly it would look like the current state government is trying to limit speech and limit criticism of things like the forestry industry. But the worry for us is that it would go far beyond the forestry industry.”
Journalists have also expressed their concern, with journalist’ union federal secretary Christopher Warren telling news.com.au that the laws will “kill freedom of speech” and that they were concerned that journalists trying to hold corporations accountable for their actions could be made targets. He also expressed concern about how the laws would operate on a national level, saying it was possible “[s]omeone in Broome might write something about a corporation that may not operate in Tasmania but could be subject to being sued in Tasmania.”
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