The New South Wales Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a defamation case brought by former Don Vale detainee Dylan Voller against three of Australia's biggest media organisations on Monday.
The landmark decision found media organisations News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment were legally responsible for comments made by readers on their social media accounts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
At the ruling, Justice Stephen Rothman set a precedent that media organisations could be considered publishers of the third-party comments and were therefore liable for them.
"Each defendant was not merely a conduit of the comment," he said in his judgment.
"[They] provided the forum for its publication and encouraged, for its own commercial purposes, the publication of comments."
"A defendant cannot escape the likely consequences of its action by turning a blind eye to it," Justice Rothman said.
Following the court decision yesterday, News Corp has indicated it is likely to appeal the decision in the High Court, but lawyers who spoke to the ABC say it is unlikely they will be successful as the ruling is in line with other judgments made internationally.
Associate Professor in Journalism at Monash University, Margaret Simons, told NITV News on Tuesday "the net effect [of the decision] will be chilling on free speech."
"If the decision holds, it is likely media organisations will prevent readers commenting on stories on the platforms that are under their control," said Ms Simons.
"This will prevent some of the uglier kinds of speech, but also shut off an important and often valuable means of citizens being able to comment, debate and to be heard.”
Ms Simons said the decision threatens to make the use of social media by news media more expensive and complicated.
"The greatest impact will be on small publishers who rely heavily on Facebook and Twitter for distribution and impact," Ms Simons said.
"They lack the resources to moderate comments and can't afford to fight defamation cases," she said.
Media companies have today called for an urgent overhaul of defamation laws.
Solicitor Stewart O'Connell said he spoke to his client after yesterday's hearing and that Mr Voller was happy with the decision.
Mr O’Connell said media organisations themselves should be responsible for moderating comments on their social media accounts.
Mr Voller made national headlines in 2016 following an ABC Four Corners report into abuses at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
In the report, footage provided to the ABC showed an image of Mr Voller strapped to a restraint chair with a ‘spit hood’ covering his head.
Media coverage surrounding Mr Voller following the ABC report and a subsequent 2016 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory was extensive.
Speaking outside of court following the decision, Mr Voller's lawyer, Stuart O'Connell, said after Mr Voller complained about defamatory comments being made about him on Facebook pages, the firm started monitoring those pages.
"Some of the things that were being written on those Facebook pages by people were accusing Dylan of extremely serious crimes beyond those for which he had previously been convicted and punished," Mr O'Connell said.
He said what was written about Mr Voller was "completely untrue and completely defamatory" and had an ongoing impact on the mental health of his client.
Mr Voller brought proceedings against The Australian, The Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia’s The Bolt Report, and Nine-Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald for allowing comments to go unmonitored in the comments sections of their social media channels.