What does it mean to harm a person’s reputation?

Contributed by Susan Platis, Legal Aid ACT and Ben Aulich (https://aulich.com.au/) and current to June 2018.

At law, everyone is presumed to have a good reputation unless facts are proven in court to show that this is not the case. Matter is held to be defamatory when it conveys a meaning (or ‘imputation’) about a person that lowers the person’s reputation in the eyes of ordinary, reasonable members of the community.

The question is, what would an ordinary viewer or listener understand from the published matter considered in context? A defamatory meaning may be the natural and ordinary meaning of a publication (i.e. the meaning an ordinary, reasonable person would take from the words) or a special meaning (known as a ‘true innuendo’) understood only by some people who have knowledge of a special fact/s. For example, the statement, ‘Jane got married last Sunday’, made to someone who knows nothing about Jane’s personal life, is not defamatory. However, if the listener knows that Jane was already married, the statement has a defamatory meaning, because it implies she is a bigamist.

It is not enough to claim the published matter has another possible meaning that is not defamatory; if ordinary people understand the published matter to have a defamatory meaning, an alternative innocent meaning is not a defence to a defamation claim.

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