Social media is dangerous say Christian lawyers

Katrina Tait never intended to make headlines. But she was hauled before the the NSW Anti-Discrimination Tribunal for sharing an ACL (Australian Christian Lobby) petition about a drag queen reading to children at a Brisbane Library.

“We are so incredibly relieved,” she tells Eternity at the news that the complaint had been withdrawn. “Our prayers have been answered.

“There are real legal risks for Christians who are actually engaged in Christian discourse on the internet.” – HRLA

“However I don’t think people should stop commenting on important issues as these because of the fear that something like this may happen. We need to stand up for what is right and also teach our children to do the same.”

But how do you avoid having to call in the lawyers when a social media comment attracts a complaint?

The lawyers who came to Katrina Tait’s rescue – the ACL-affiliated Human Rights Law Alliance – has compiled a social media guide for Christians.

“Depending on its use, social media can broadcast statements of belief and opinions about others to the whole world or to a select group,” HRLA comments. “Christians need to be careful that when using social media they do not defame or vilify others.

“There are real legal risks for Christians who are actually engaged in Christian discourse on the internet.”

The HRLA point to Australia’s defamation laws as a major issue. “They can apply when you have published something about someone else that is not based on facts and that would cause others to think less of them and damage their personal or professional reputation,” says HRLA, whose comments are general and not intended as legal advice.

There are some defences – such as an honestly held opinion – but that is not simple to establish. It is best not to post, like or retweet anything that would be hard to prove is based on facts.

“It is irrelevant whether you intended to cause offense or defame someone, the courts will look to the effect of what you have said on the person saying they have been defamed,” HRLA warns.

Besides defamation, “it is possible for a complainant to lodge a complaint to an Equal Opportunity Commission alleging vilification or harassment”, say the HRLA. A well-known case is Hobart’s Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous, who was taken before the Anti Discrimination commissioner in that state over a pamphlet containing the traditional Catholic view on marriage after it was circulated through Catholic schools in Tasmania.

Just as with Katrina Tait’s case, the complainant dropped the case.

From the viewpoint of the complained-about Christians, the process is the punishment. In some cases, years of social media comment are trawled through.

“If you had an auditorium of 5,000 people in front of you, would you still utter into the microphone what you just quickly tapped out on your phone?” is the question the HRLA would like you to ask.

Or in other words “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Colossians 4:5-6

Hot-button issues need special care. “Orthodox Christian teaching on sex and sexual ethics have become very controversial in today’s society. If invited into a discussion online about these issues it is important that a Christian engages very carefully and thoughtfully. In some situations, it may even be better not to engage at all.”

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