Today’s publication by WikiLeaks of a Victorian Supreme Court suppression order demonstrates once again how Australian, and particularly Victorian, courts and lawyers are stuck fast in the 19th century in their attitude to both citizens and technology. It’s an example of how the legal industry persistently acts as a gatekeeper for information it believes ordinary citizens can’t handle.

The case involved, which Crikey has been advised not to refer to, is one of considerable public interest. The allegations involved are serious. And it’s all just a Google search or a quick visit to the WikiLeaks site away.

But no Australian media outlet can publish the text of the order. Instead, we’re forced to treat readers like children.

Even so, hundreds of people in both Australia and other countries have shared the link and commented on the case. Does that constitute publication? According to Crikey’s legal boffins, it’s certainly “not without risk”.

“The question of whether retweeting a link constitutes republication of what’s in the link, like many areas of social media liability, remains unclear. However, it’s fair to say that if you retweeted a link about a matter so notorious, you’d be playing with fire,” our legal contact said.

That hasn’t stopped a number of high-profile figures on social media doing just that:

The overseas experience is that the more this legal industry gatekeeping is short-circuited by internet exposure, the less likely lawyers are to use it. That ancient cliche about the internet — that it interprets censorship as damage and routes around it — was always overhyped as a remedy for attacks on free speech. But in this case, it’s correct.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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