Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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The social media minefield

Published 13 January 2013 20:37, Updated 14 January 2013 05:09

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The social media minefield

Comments made on social media are subject to defamation law. There have been a number of cases internationally, with individual Twitter users being sued for libel over comments made on the social network. Photo: AFP

Lawyers are confused about how they should use social media tools, while law firms are exposing themselves to risk because they lack social media strategies and don’t adequately train their staff, a report suggests.

Here are a few recent legal cases around social media that law firms – and any businesses – should note.


Transport company Linfox tried to sack truck driver Glen Stutsel after he made comments on his personal Facebook page about two managers. But Fair Work Australia ruled that Stutsel was dismissed unfairly and ruled that he be reinstated and paid compensation for lost wages. Linfox appealed but lost in October last year.

Stutsel had described one manager, who is Muslim, as a “bacon hater” and made comments about the death of a Muslim terrorist. He also posted remarks about a female manager which led to a string of sexual comments by his Facebook friends. The industrial umpire ruled that the employee’s comments were in bad taste but fell within his rights to free speech.

Fair Work Australia took into account Stutsel’s belief that his Facebook profile was on the maximum privacy settings and could be seen only by his 170 Facebook friends. However, the ruling noted that claims of ignorance would be viewed less favourably in the future and urged all employees to be careful about what they post on Facebook.


In a 2011 case, Fair Work Australia upheld the right of the Townsville franchise of retail electrical goods business The Good Guys to sack computer technician Damian O’Keefe. The employee had posted on Facebook that he wondered “how the f--k work can be so f--king useless and mess up my pay again. C--ts are going down tomorrow.”

The business argued that the post constituted a threat to Kelly Taylor, an operations manager responsible for processing employees’ pay. The company’s employee handbook referred to the need to be polite to colleagues and customers and contained detailed policies on sexual harassment and workplace bullying.

O’Keefe argued that he had blocked the pay manager from seeing his comments on Facebook, but his Facebook privacy settings meant that 11 co-workers could read the post. Fair Work Australia found that the employee’s actions amounted to serious misconduct and dismissed the unfair dismissal claim.


Comments made on social media are subject to defamation law. There have been a number of cases internationally, with individual Twitter users being sued for libel over comments made on the social network. And Melbourne man Joshua Meggitt sued Twitter itself over a tweet by writer and TV identity Marieke Hardy wrongly outing Meggitt as the author of a hate blog dedicated to her. He reached a separate confidential settlement with Hardy, reported to be around $15,000, but was suing Twitter for the re-tweets and subsequent comments by other Twitter users.

In Britain as many as 10,000 Twitter users face the prospect of libel action after tweets referring to a BBC report that wrongly linked a former Conservative Party official, Alistair McAlpine, to the sexual abuse of a child. The BBC report did not name McAlpine but included enough clues that readers were able to identify him. The BBC settled a libel claim, paying McAlpine £185,000 ($280,000) and apologising, but in an unusual move McAlpine is pursuing a wide number of Twitter users. He is seeking libel damages from 20 high-profile tweeters and inviting Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers to make contact and apologise via a specially created website.

What other cases do you know about? Leave a comment below or write and tell me your views at