By Jeremy Sollars
The Southern Downs Regional Council has sought legal advice over what it claims are “defamatory comments” made about councillors and council staff and their family members on social media.
Councillors in a confidential session of a special meeting held in Warwick on Monday of this week, 15 July, voted – with the exception of Cr Vic Pennisi – in favour of issuing a ‘Concerns Notice (Cease and Desist)’ against an undisclosed recipient.
On Tuesday of this week the Free Times asked the council for more information on the matter but a spokeswoman said this could not be provided.
The Free Times understands the council’s lawyers forwarded a ‘Concerns Notice (Cease and Desist)’ to the administrators of Facebook page ‘Southern Downs Reboot’ yesterday, Wednesday 17 July, and requested the site be taken down and a public apology issued about material posted on the site in recent months.
It is understood the administrators of the page have de-activated it but it is not known if any apologies will be issued.
A ‘Concerns Notice (Cease and Desist)’ is a legal measure designed to alert another party about conduct the issuer of the notice believes is potentially actionable – such as through a defamation claim – and to require them to cease their conduct or face possible further legal action.
Defamation is a highly-specialised area of law and the few lawyers in Australia who specialise in the field charge considerable sums of money for their services.
If the council were to launch a full-blown defamation case against ‘Southern Downs Reboot’ or any other party its own lawyers would be likely to in turn engage a specialist defamation lawyer which could cost ratepayers a significant sum, over and above any preliminary legal costs incurred by the council for the issuing of the ‘Concerns Notice’.
The council issued a statement today – Thursday 18 July – headed ‘Council prepared to take stand against its social media defamers’.
The statement said the council “has recently become concerned over the defamatory comments circulating on some social media sites about Councillors, their family members and Council staff”.
“Council does not believe this behaviour should go unchallenged,” the statement said.
“It has enlisted the legal advice of law firm McCullough Robertson and will consider appropriate action against offending sites if necessary.”
Mayor Tracy Dobie said that “a line had been crossed with posts and comments, and the negative impact of this social media harassment and slander extended beyond the defamed individuals”.
“Council will not stand in the way of freedom of speech as it is a fundamental constitutional right,” Cr Dobie said.
“However there is a fine line between freedom of speech and defamation, and certain social media sites have crossed that line.
“Recent posts and comments loaded onto some social media sites are false, misleading and damaging to the reputations of Councillors, their family members and Council staff.
“Even more detrimental is the damage to the reputation of the Southern Downs at a time when the region is vulnerable and crippled by drought.
“Defamatory comments have not only impacted on Councillors and employees personally and professionally, but also on their families.
“This type of behaviour and harassment sets an appalling example to our younger generation. Enough is enough. Council is prepared to stand up against online harassment, slander and stalking and take action if necessary.
“It’s about the misrepresentation of individuals in the media.”
The council statement said that “according to legal firm McCullough Robertson, the posted comments go far beyond legitimate public discourse as they are published with the intent to embarrass and demean the individuals who are the subject of those statements”.
The Free Times has asked the council for details of its total expenditure on legal matters last financial year and since 1 July this year and is awaiting a response.