What if someone is gossiping about me, or telling embarrassing old stories about me or defaming me?
Unless the gossip or old stories amounts to defamation of you then you cannot take legal action against gossip.
What is defamation?
No simple definition exists but generally you have been defamed when words have been spoken or written which:
- injure your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community
- injure you in your trade or profession (eg lead you to get less work) or
- are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.
Defamation occurs when somebody speaks in a defamatory way to another person or when defamatory material is published. Publication can include on the internet, for example on Facebook. It is only defamation if the person who receives or hears the defamation understands that it is defamatory.
A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.
What can I do if I am harassed, threatened or defamed online?
You do not have to put up with being harassed or threatened or defamed online. You should take action to try to stop it.
You can ask the person to remove the comments or information you do not like. If they refuse you can contact the social networking site and ask them to remove the information. If you are a school student and the person who made the comments is also at your school, you can tell a teacher, the principal or your school counsellor. They may be able to help have the information removed.
Some harassment or threats may break criminal laws. You may have grounds for getting a restraining order- see Misconduct restraining orders - information and Violence restraining orders -information. Also see below under the heading What can I do if I am receiving threats or verbal abuse?
You should get legal advice if you believe you have been defamed online.
What if I just want some information about me posted on a social networking site removed?
If there is a photo or information that you want removed you can try what is suggested in paragraph two under the previous question.
Are there defences to defamation?
There are defences to defamation. A defence is a legal reason why the statements can be made without being defamatory. For example:
- Privileged comments or publications are not defamatory. Privilege occurs in situations when the law protects people's rights to express themselves such as a speech in parliament, or statements made in a court of law.
- Some situations are partly protected by privilege, eg reasonable comments about work performance as a referee.
- It is a defence to publication if it can be proved the defamatory material is substantially true.
The law in Western Australia encourages resolution of disputes about publication of defamatory material without going to court.
Even if defamation is proven in a court it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages. Get legal advice before starting any court action.
Do time limits apply to take legal action?
Yes strict time limits apply. Get legal advice.
Can defamation be a criminal offence?
In Western Australia there is an offence of criminal defamation to cover the publication of some defamatory matter about another living person.
What can I do if I am receiving threats or verbal abuse?
You should report threats of violence, whether made over the phone, in writing or in person, to the police.
In some circumstances where you are being threatened or suffering abuse you may be able to take out a misconduct restraining order or a violence restraining order. For more information see Misconduct restraining orders - information or Violence restraining orders - information.
What if the abuse is racial?
The information under the previous question may apply if the abuse includes threats of violence.
If it happens in the areas of employment, education, and/or accommodation it may be racial harassment that is unlawful under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA). It is racial harassment when a person threatens, abuses, insults or taunts another person because of their race, and that other person is disadvantaged, or has reasonable grounds for believing that they will be disadvantaged, by taking objection.
If the abuse is conduct intended or likely to incite racial animosity or racial harassment it may be a criminal offence.
What can I do if someone is using offensive language around me?
As it is an offence to use insulting, offensive or threatening language in public you can call the police.
If it is being used at home you may be able to get a violence restraining order. Get legal advice.
My child is being bullied at school by things that are said or posted online on Facebook. What can I do?
If your child is being bullied you should take it up with the school counsellor, teacher or principal immediately. Policies should be in place to deal with this.
It will not be unlawful discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) unless the bullying relates to one of the grounds covered by the Act, eg sex, race, impairment and so on. For information on what grounds are covered by the Act see Discrimination.
I have heard that someone has personal information about me from my medical records and has been telling people about it. What can I do?
You could contact the person and ask them to not pass on personal information.
If you want to make a complaint about the medical information being improperly disclosed to the person who has been telling people about it see Health Complaints under the heading I have a complaint about my personal health information being revealed. What can I do?
Where can I get more information?
- For a referral to lawyers experienced in defamation contact the Law Society of WA on (08) 9324 8600.
- For more information on unlawful racial harassment contact the Equal Opportunity Commission WA
on (08) 9216 3900 or 1800 198 149.
- Contact the Department of Education WA on (08) 9264 4111 or go to its website for information for parents and students on bullying at school.
- At the DBCDE website you can download a Cybersafety Help Button free application. It provides
internet users, particularly children and young people, with easy online access to cybersafety information and assistance available in Australia. It offers counselling, reporting and educational resources to assist young people deal with online risks including cyberbullying, unwanted contact, scams and fraud, and offensive or inappropriate material.
- Go to Bullying. No Way! an educational website for Australian school communities and the general public.
- The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and ReachOut.com have developed factsheets for young people on how to deal with bullying, including cyberbullying, workplace bullying, and being supportive for people who are being bullied. These are available online. The AHRC also has a complaint handling service that may investigate complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying. It can be contacted on 1300 656 419.
- The ThinkUKnow and Cybersmart websites have information for parents, carers, teachers and young people about internet safety and dealing with cyberbullying.
- See also Privacy and freedom of information.
- Visit the The Line an online magazine designed by young people for young people with information on respectful relationships.
- Visit the Lawstuff website (click on WA) for information on young people's rights on a range of topics.
Last reviewed: 22/03/2013