ACCORDING to the Gospel of John, chapter eight verse 32, "the truth shall set you free". While that may be true in a spiritual sense, in the modern world, the truth can also bankrupt you. That is because, although freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, this does not mean we are immune to the consequences of exercising that freedom irresponsibly.
To the surprise of many laymen, the law of defamation exists as a remedy not only when a gossip’s lies damage an individual’s reputation, but also when the gratuitous telling of the truth hurts more than can be justified. The classic test in terms of South African common law is one of truth and public benefit — there must be a good reason for disseminating damaging information about somebody, even if it is true.
This legal quirk tripped up many people over the years, but the advent of the internet — chat rooms, comment boxes and social media — seemed to throw the old rules out of the window. Suddenly, insulting, abusive and defamatory comments were common, and it seemed there was no longer any reliable remedy.
Until this week, when the South Gauteng High Court granted a Johannesburg man an interdict ordering a former friend to remove defamatory posts from her Facebook page and refrain from slandering him online in future.
The woman had implied, in a post that was accessible to the applicant’s minor children, that his marriage had broken down because of his drinking, drug-taking and male chauvinism. But the really interesting part of Judge Nigel Willis’s ruling is that the veracity of the allegations was not considered relevant: what mattered was that the woman was unable to show why stating it on a public forum was of benefit to the public.
To quote Judge Willis: "The law has to take into account changing realities, not only technologically but also socially, or else it will lose credibility in the eyes of the people. Without credibility, law loses legitimacy. If law loses legitimacy, it loses acceptance. If it loses acceptance, it loses obedience. It is imperative that the courts respond appropriately to changing times, acting cautiously and with wisdom."
The precedent with regard to defamation has been re-established — internet users ignore it, and the law on hate speech and bullying behaviour, at their peril.