A refugee advocate’s successful appeal in Peter Dutton’s defamation action over a six-word tweet has been hailed as a victory for political discussion and free speech.
A judge in December ordered Shane Bazzi to pay Mr Dutton $35,000 in damages and some of his legal costs, after finding the tweet labelling the then home affairs minister “a rape apologist” was defamatory.
But three Federal Court appeal judges on Tuesday allowed Mr Bazzi’s appeal, set aside the December order and dismissed the proceeding.
Mr Bazzi’s since-deleted post contained a link to a 2019 news article quoting Mr Dutton saying some refugee women on Nauru who complained of rape were “trying it on” in order to come to Australia.
Following his successful appeal, Mr Bazzi said the case had taken a tremendous toll on him and his family and he was relieved “that justice has finally prevailed”.
“This case was not just about me,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“It was about anyone who wants to make political comments or criticism on social media.”
Greens NSW Senate candidate David Shoebridge described it as a “significant win for free speech in this country, a really significant win for political discourse in this country”.
“Shane Bazzi, a refugee advocate, was taken to court by one of the most powerful politicians in the country, Peter Dutton, who sought to silence him and silence his critique,” Mr Shoebridge told reporters.
In his December judgment Justice Richard White found that an “ordinary reasonable reader” would have understood Mr Bazzi to be asserting that Mr Dutton was a person who excused rape, and that the attached news link supported that characterisation.
The judge also rejected the defence of honest opinion and fair comment on a matter of public interest. This finding was not challenged.
The appeal was solely on whether the tweet conveyed the imputation that Mr Dutton excuses rape.
The appeal judges found while the tweet was derogatory about Mr Dutton, an ordinary reasonable reader would not gain the impression that it conveyed that he excused rape.
In their reasons, Justices Steven Rares and Darryl Rangiah said The Guardian material linked to the tweet centred on allegations of rape.
When read with Mr Bazzi’s six words, the reader would conclude that the tweet suggested Mr Dutton was sceptical about the rape claims and in that way was an apologist.
“But that is very different from imputing that he excuses rape itself,” they said.
“It is not sufficient that the tweet was offensive and derogatory.
“Mr Dutton had the onus to establish, on the balance of probabilities, that the reader reasonably would have understood that the tweet conveyed the imputation that he asserted it conveyed. In our opinion, he failed …”
Delivering his reasons separately, Justice Michael Wigney said the tweet when considered as a whole and in context did not convey the impression that Mr Dutton defended the act of rape.
Comment has been sought from Mr Dutton.