Defamation and e-mail.
Defamation laws compensate for damage to a person’s reputation. A person can be defamed by any statement which lowers their reputation in the estimation of others, or that results in them being shunned or avoided by others or which exposes them to hatred, contempt or ridicule by others. Just because a person is hurt or upset does not mean that they have been defamed. Reputation must be damaged from an objective point of view.
People can be defamed by written or oral statements, poems, cartoons, photographs, songs, websites, tweets, instant messages, e-mails or any other form of communication. The negative meaning conveyed by a defamatory statement could be literal, or it could be implied or insinuated. You do not have to intend to harm someone with your remarks in order for liability in defamation to arise.
A communication is not defamatory unless it is published to someone other than the target. A person can say anything he likes about anothet to his face, as long as no-one else overhears. It is defamation for person A to say something negative about person B to person C. If person B then forwards the email to other people, person B will have committed a fresh act of defamation. It is not just the original author of the defamatory communication who can get into trouble.
Other examples of email defamation are:
- Using someone else’s computer to send a negative email from their account
- Change someone else’s facebook status to something which paints them in a negative light
- Editing an email that has been received and then forwarding it onto others so that it looks like the author wrote something that he didn’t
Ryan v Premachandran  NSWSC 1186 illustrates the dangers of sending a defamatory email. More than $80, 000 in damages was awarded to a Sydney primary school principal as the result of a defamatory email sent by a disgruntled parent. The parent sent an email to 14 other parents, alleging that the principal was incompetent, dishonest, untrustworthy, responsible for the school’s low education standard, and not fit to hold her position. The award of damages took into account harm occasioned by what the court found was the malicious conduct of the defendant in publishing the email.
- Anything you say or write may be repeated to others, even if you intended the communication to be private. It is particularly easy to forward on an email to countless others with a few clicks.
- Repeating rumours or forwarding emails can be defamatory
- CC-ing or BCC-ing others into sensitive email exchanges can be defamatory
- Be careful of making unsubstantiated allegations as the audience is entitled to presume that there is a factual basis to them.
- There is a fine line between an innocent joke and holding someone up to ridicule or derision