NSW Department of Education

Online speech and the law

For teachers
For parents
For students

Key message

The internet offers many avenues to express yourself in different ways. A good digital citizen communicates clearly, respectfully and honestly when online.

Australia has a tradition of robust debate and freedom of political speech, but there are no explicit laws that establish a general freedom of expression. Most online forums and social media platforms are run by private organisations, and include some restrictions on permitted speech in their terms and conditions. There are some clearly established exceptions to free speech in law – Youth Law Australia has a good overview of defamation law. Making and distributing personal recordings can be illegal, and some online speech can be classified as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying

Using technology to bully someone is called cyberbullying. There are lots of resources for supporting victims of cyberbullying – some good places to start are the eSafety Commissioner cyberbullying help page and Youth Law Australia’s overview of the law around bullying.

Defamation

Defamation is defined as the act of damaging the good reputation of someone, slander or libel.

Defamation law was set up to protect reputations. You may have been defamed if someone posts something false about you that would cause the average person to think less of you. If you believe someone is defaming you online, you should try to collect as much evidence as possible (like screenshots of the defamatory material).

Youth Law Australia goes into more detail about defamation law in NSW, as well as steps you can take if you think you have been defamed.

Photos, videos and the law

Most mobile devices are capable of recording images, conversations and video, so it is important to be aware of the laws around privacy, recording and personal images. In general, it is important to make sure that you have permission from other people before you record a conversation with or take photos of them. This applies even if you are involved in the conversation or are in the photo yourself.

The law around taking photos and making recordings depends partly on where you are, especially whether you are in a public or private space. It also depends on who you are recording or taking photos of, and the nature of the recordings or photos. Just asking for intimate images might be considered a crime in some states and territories, depending on who is being asked.

If someone has shared an image or recording of you without your permission, the eSafety Commissioner site has a guide to responding to image-based abuse.

Youth Law Australia has a more detailed breakdown of the law around photos and recordings.

Top tips

Additional resources

Curriculum and syllabus links

References

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