: Social media and the law

Social media and the law

James Farrell

New national laws are being considered to address the risk that social media will jeopardise criminal trials.

Social media was flooded with messages following the disappearance of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher, which turned to vitriolic abuse when a 41-year-old man was charged with her murder.

Ms Meagher’s husband spoke about this outside the court following the accused’s bail application , saying ‘And while I really appreciate all the support I just would like to mention that negative comments on social media may hurt legal proceedings, so please be mindful of that.’

At the October meeting of the Standing Council on Law and Justice (‘SCLJ’) in Brisbane, Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark raised the dangers of sites such as Facebook and Twitter influencing juries and undermining trials. Speaking on radio, Mr Clark said ‘What we’ve got to do is get procedures that can make sure that material that runs the risk of prejudicing a fair trial can be taken down, that users know what their responsibilities are and … that jurors are properly warned about ignoring prejudicial material that might come to their attention’.

SCLJ agreed to form a working group to make recommendations on how to regulate the spread of prejudicial material on social media, including warnings for users (which courts and police could issue on Facebook or Twitter) and protocols between social media organisations, law enforcement agencies and courts for the removal of prejudicial material from content posted on social media. It will also propose directions that courts can give to juries on social media, examine laws that detail juror offences and assess what research may be needed to determine how social media (and other extrinsic materials) may affect jurors’ decisions. The working group will comprise mainstream and social media representatives, judicial officers and police.

JAMES FARRELL teaches law at Deakin University.

(2012) 37(4) AltLJ 282
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