Social Media Comments Jeopardize Legal Proceedings
For the second time in as many months, Facebook’s policy protecting free speech is putting the social media behemoth on a collision course with the Australian government. This time the dispute is over online comments which could jeopardize a murder prosecution.
The case of Jill Meagher, an Irishwoman who was murdered in Melbourne in late September, has already received a great deal of attention in the Australian and international press, and has inspired public demonstrations demanding greater safety and civility in Australia. But the outpouring of emotion over Meagher’s murder took an ugly turn after the apprehension of a suspect, Adrian Ernest Bayley, who became the immediate target of inflammatory verbal attacks in comments left on Facebook memorial pages for Meagher and elsewhere.
According to Australian government attorneys, the comments are of a nature that could potentially spike the case against Bayley by prejudicing the public against him, thus making it difficult to have a fair jury trial. In an effort to avoid this, Australian attorneys general have met with Facebook to urge the company to take down the memorial pages or at least block some of the inappropriate comments -- but so far the social network isn’t budging.
While the lawyers wrangle with Facebook, Meagher’s husband, Tom Meagher, has asked the public to stop posting prejudicial comments online: "... [W]hile I appreciate all the support, I would just like to mention that negative comments on social media may hurt legal proceedings, so please be mindful of that." The message has been echoed by Australian police, with Tim Cartwright, the deputy commissioner of the Victoria Police, quoted as saying: “Some of those sites are inciting hatred and really quite disgusting in the sorts of messages they're portraying.”
The case may spur new legislation giving the government greater powers over social media. A spokesperson for Victoria attorney general Robert Clark stated: “Issues relating to social media and the law go well beyond state boundaries, and any reform should be based on a coordinated national approach if at all possible.”
As noted, this isn’t the first time Facebook has clashed with the Australian government over free speech. In August I wrote about the controversy created by a Facebook page inciting racial hatred against aborigines, which prompted Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to demand that the page be removed for violating Australia’s laws against racial discrimination. The opposition Liberal Party also encouraged Parliament to consider further legislation that would require social networks to immediately remove such content -- and, if they attempt to resist, empower the government to compel them to do so. The extra powers may be necessary, according to one supporter, because, as the controversy illustrated, “It is clear that regulating social media providers using traditional approaches is difficult because their senior management and ownership is normally in other countries.”