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The High Court has ruled media outlets are liable for defamatory comments published on their Facebook pages, in a landmark appeal over what has become known as the Voller case.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian were held legally responsible as publishers of readers’ Facebook comments about former Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller because the media outlets set up and facilitated the comments by posting news stories on public Facebook pages.

The decision has implications for all social media users, as it clarifies the element of publication via social media comment spaces. The outlets were held to be publishers of the comments, despite the difficulties they faced in controlling those comments. At the time, Facebook did not allow hosts of public pages to turn off comments on posts, though they could be deleted after posting.

High Court Justices Stephen Gageler and Michelle Gordon said: “Where … the operator of an ‘electronic bulletin board’ posts material with the intention that third parties will comment on the material posted, the operator cannot escape being a publisher of the comments of those third parties.

“The most appropriate analogy is with live television or talkback radio.”

Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australia, told The Sydney Morning Herald  that “the decision by the High Court in the Voller case is significant for anyone who maintains a public social media page” because “they can be liable for comments posted by others on that page even when they are unaware of those comments”.