One Nation’s New South Wales leader Mark Latham is facing defamation proceedings for tweets he posted about a university student charged (and since released) on terrorism charges, in a case the plaintiff’s lawyer says may prompt new legislation against religious hate speech.
Mohamed Nizamdeen was arrested by NSW Police Force last year over an alleged plot to kill then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and attack the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He was released without charge after four weeks in solitary confinement treated as a terror suspect, when police found that another man was responsible for the notebook containing the plans. In November, his lawyers announced they would be suing for defamation some of the media outlets that covered the case.
But Latham’s tweets about the accusations, which name Nizamdeen, have remained online for months and were still on his Twitter profile this morning. One tweet cites the accusations and says universities “have become dangerous places”. Another tweet quotes a University of NSW tweet about tips for the UNSW open day, with Latham saying visitors should start by avoiding Nizamdeen “and any of his mates”.
This week, Nizamdeen’s lawyers lodged a defamation statement of claim in the Federal Court, saying Latham’s tweets bring Nizamdeen “into hatred, ridicule and contempt”.
He’s also claiming aggravated damages, as Latham had “reckless indifference” as to whether the accusations were true or false, and didn’t immediately withdraw the allegations and apologise when told they were false.
Nizamdeen’s lawyer Moustafa Kheir told Crikey that using defamation law was a “roundabout” way of pursuing a case of religious discrimination and hate speech on behalf of his client. “Had we have the proper means, we would have pursued this under discrimination laws,” he said. “This is a roundabout way of doing that, because the discrimination laws don’t allow us to pursue a case of religious discrimination.”
Kheir has also sent a concerns notice to Senator Fraser Anning over tweets regarding Nizamdeen, but has not lodged any court papers. Anning’s office said it would not comment while the matter was ongoing.
The implications of hate speech and the responsibility of media that gives it a platform has been under particular scrutiny since the attack in Christchurch on Friday. Latham was sent a concerns notice in February regarding the tweets, before the attacks, and Kheir said the decision to lodge the papers with the court this week was not related to the shootings. But he said there may now be a greater inclination in the community for legislation to be introduced about hate speech directed towards religion.
“We hope that the conversation in our society about the effects of hate speech continues and results in a change in legislation to protect from religious discrimination,” he said. “This case is about the effects of hate speech, especially in the context of what happened on Friday.”
Latham has dismissed the case as a political stunt, telling Crikey he hadn’t been served with any legal papers. However, the Federal Court has confirmed to Crikey that the papers have been lodged.
Latham is currently campaigning for a seat in the NSW upper house ahead of Saturday’s election, and said Nine News (which first wrote about the case yesterday) hadn’t contacted him for comment before publishing. “People who don’t think they can beat me at the ballot box appear to be resorting to lawfare stunts through Channel Nine, which is pretty pathetic,” he said in a statement.
Last year, Latham settled a defamation case brought by ABC journalist Osman Faruqi. Kheir said this case is very similar to that of Nizamdeen. Using his online video show Mark Latham’s Outsiders, Latham accused Faruqi of “anti-white racism”, and suggested this contributed to Islamist terrorism. Faruqi said the commentary had imputed he knowingly assists terrorist fanatics wanting to kill people in Australia, that he condoned the murder of innocent people by Islamic terrorists, and that he encouraged and facilitated terrorism.
Faruqi’s lawyers said the settlement and costs ran to more than $100,000.
Kheir said the Faruqi case may also have been possible to pursue under discrimination laws if there were a provision for religious hate speech, such as he has proposed. Latham is yet to file a defence.