Social media pages of charities and nonprofit organisations provide a timely, convenient and inexpensive means of communicating with members and supporters, building a community of engaged advocates for their cause and with a potential audience of millions of people here and abroad.

There are some matters that ought to be monitored and dealt with by organisations to prevent embarrassing and usually expensive legal consequences, mostly in respect of defamation. In some cases, organisations and their controllers are suing to protect their reputations.

Here are a few recent examples:

  • In Nyasulu[1], the founders and leaders of Streams, a prophetic ministry, sued a former member who allegedly published a series of 12 posts on the Ministry Facebook page alleged to convey imputations of the use of satanic or demonic power by each Streams leader for the purpose of stealing away the former member’s daughter.
  • Sargon Eshow[2] concerned a claim of defamation by Facebook posts. The judge was satisfied with the evidence that, on the balance of probabilities the Bishop did not publish or cause the material to be published.  There was evidence that the Bishop did not have a Facebook account, and fake profiles and posts had been made.  The Court firmly resisted an attempt to air grievances raised in the past concerning the Assyrian Church.
  • A successful application for the summary dismissal of a defamation action involving church members occurred in Park[3]. The Court considered that each of the imputations was not reasonably capable of being conveyed, either in its natural and ordinary meaning or by reason of the true innuendo plea.
  • A charity and its founder sued a television station for the broadcast of defamatory material from the interpretation of an annual information statement of accounts filed with the ACNC in Nassif[4]. The Court assessed the damages of the founder at $100,000 and of the charity at $500. There was no evidence of loss of fundraising income by the charity as a ball held after the broadcast generated higher income and greater takings in comparison to 2 previous balls.
  • In Webster[5] a not-for-profit organisation operating in rural New South established to provide benevolent relief from social isolation, poverty, ill-health, destitution and distress for pregnant women and new mothers who lacked support and resources was defamed on social media, along with its founders. The Court awarded damages of $300,000 and, while recognising that an entity may not be awarded damages for hurt feelings, the Court said the sum awarded was required to convince a bystander of the baselessness of the defamatory claims.
  • In Pan v Cheng; Zhou v Cheng[6] aggravated damages were awarded for anonymous defamation of an aged care provider and senior officers of the provider, even though there were limited receivers of the defamatory statements. Individuals were awarded damages of $285,000 and $200,000, respectively and the charity $150,000.
  • An allegedly defamatory discussion on Twitter discrediting a philanthropist for his work with children was considered in Giustra[7]. Giustra alleged that he was targeted by a group that vilified him on Twitter for political purposes in relation to the 2016 United States election, as part of an orchestrated campaign to discredit him because of his charitable and philanthropic work in support of the Clinton Foundation. The Appeal Court found that there was no practical difficulty that would make holding the trial in British Columbia against Twitter inappropriate.
  • In Port Alberni Shelter Society[8], one non-profit’s executive director waged a defamatory campaign against another non-profit organisation and 2 of its senior staff. The staff were awarded over $330,000 in damages. The organisation was held liable for the defamation of its employees.

Organisations need to consider measures to avoid defamatory posts on their social media and have plans for prompt action if a post might be considered defamatory.

Charity and non-profit regulators are increasingly using searches of social media and web pages in their enforcement strategies to use as evidence as to the purpose and activities of the organisation.

Controlling what appears on the organisation’s official web and social sites is the best policy, rather than deleting material in due course. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/) is just one of a number of services that allows people to visit archived versions of Web sites that may be deleted. Visitors to the Wayback Machine can type in a URL, select a date range, and then begin surfing on an archived version of the Web.

[1] Nyasulu v Naikelekele [2022] NSWDC 507

[2] Sargon Eshow v Bishop Mar Meelis Zaia [2019] VSC 465

[3] Park v Kim [2019] NSWDC 609

[4] Nassif v Seven Network (Operations) Ltd [2021] FCA 1286

[5] Webster v Brewer (No 3) [2020] FCA 1343

[6] Pan v Cheng; Zhou v Cheng [2021] NSWSC 30

[7] Giustra v. Twitter, Inc., 2021 BCCA 466

[8] Port Alberni Shelter Society v. Literacy Alberni Society 2022 BCSC 239

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