In Australia, Bill Ringland, chair of the Clean Seas Coalition, was sued by his local council for putting out a press release that the council claimed was defamatory. The press release, which was quoted in the local paper, The Northern Star, said that sewage “will continue to be pumped out surreptitiously at night” from the local ocean outfall.
’s practice of discharging sewage effluent at night from its treatment ponds and the fact that most local residents were unaware of this practice. The Council chose to interpret the use of the word ‘sewage’ in Ringland’s press release as raw sewage rather than treated sewage and the word ‘surreptitiously’ as secretly and unlawfully and therefore claimed that the press release was falsely accusing the Council of breaching its license requirements.
The Council, via its solicitors, demanded an apology from Ringland, who declined. The Northern Star, however, printed a full apology on its own behalf, saying that it accepted “the view of the Ballina Shire Council that there is no sewage being put into the sea by the council.” The newspaper also suggested that the Clean Seas Coalition was unjustifiably trying to discredit the council.
The Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of NSW found (in a 2 to 1 decision) that a Council could not sue for defamation (although individual councillors could). In his judgement Judge Gleeson stated:
The idea of a democracy is that people are encouraged to express their criticisms, even their wrong-headed criticisms, of elected governmental institutions, in the expectation that this process will improve the quality of the government. The fact that the institutions are democratically elected is supposed to mean that, through a process of political debate and decision, the citizens in a community govern themselves. To treat government institutions as having a ‘governing reputation’ which the common law will protect against criticism on the part of citizens is, to my mind, incongruous.