The definitive book on Australian defamation law

3 October 2016
Journalist, publisher, lawyer and alumnus launches book

Professor David Rolph (BA ’97 LLB ’99, PhD (Law) ’05) is the author of Defamation Law, a book set to become the authoritative work in this field.

defamation book launch

From left: Mr Richard Ackland, The Hon. Michael Kirby, and Professor David Rolph, photo: Michaela Whitbourn

“Professor Rolph’s text combines both academic and practical approaches to this complex topic,” writes the Hon. Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia, in the book’s foreword. 

“He provides a comprehensive explanation of the theory of defamation law and a guide to its many aspects in practice. He points out that, despite defamation law in Australia now being uniform, it has not been subjected to real reform.” 

Defamation Law analyses the competing interests underlying defamation and considers in detail the requirements of the plaintiff ’s case for defamation, the range of available defences and the remedies that may be awarded. 

Journalist, publisher, lawyer and alumnus Richard Ackland (BEc ’70) launched the book at a special event in the Sydney offices of Gilbert & Tobin. 

“If anything this book is a pointer to the shocking shortcomings of our defamation law, a law stuck in the age of the golf club noticeboard that does not reflect the reality of what is happening with digital publishing,” Mr Ackland said in his speech. 

“Our courts and legislators are well behind the curve in their response to information technology. The courts even think that search engines can be treated as publishers of defamatory statements and this applies even where the operator of a search engine is not on notice. 

“More than anything, the internet with its army of bloggers requires the response of a single publication rule, a serious harm test, someone to work out a contextual truth defence, a responsible journalism defence and an end to the unworkability of the High Court’s efforts in Lange * .” 

In her review in the Gazette of Law and Journalism , Defamation List Judge, Her Honour Judge Judith Gibson (BA ’74 MA ’91 LLB ’78) of the District Court of New South Wales, described the book as “a lively and thought-provoking account of the history and problems of defamation law in Australia. 

“It is also a work of detection: who is responsible for Australian defamation law being (to quote the sub-headings in Chapter 1) so ‘technical’, ‘artificial’ and ‘complex’?

“Professor Rolph’s publication is a vital contribution, not only to the identification and clarification of defamation law, but to the law reform debate generally. 

He has set out the issues for reform in the wider framework of how the legislation and case law succeed – or fail – to deal with the tension between protection of reputation and freedom of speech. And this dispassionate and objective approach means that the problems – and the solutions – are clear. 

“If defamation law reform is to go back onto the legislative drawing board, this book will be an essential reference text.” 

Joining the chorus of eminent support for Professor Rolph’s work, the Hon. Justice Peter Applegarth of the Supreme Court of Queensland remarked: “I confidently expect that David will have a long and happy life updating this great work as courts, and hopefully legislatures too, embark upon the neglected task of reforming defamation law in this country. 

“Anyone with an interest in what our law is, and in what it might be, should read this great addition to legal scholarship.” 

Having completed his legal education at the University of Sydney, Professor David Rolph joined the University as a full-time academic in 2005, immediately after completing his PhD. 

Professor Rolph’s expertise in media law has gained him roles on the editorial boards of the Media and Arts Law Review , the Communications Law Bulletin and the International Journal of the Semiotics of Law . He also served as the editor of one of Australia’s leading law journals, the Sydney Law Review , for seven years. W hat he values most about being an academic at the University of Sydney Law School is his freedom of choice as a researcher. 

“That level of independence, in terms of what you do and how you do it, is very rare to find in any other job,” he says. “I would think there are very few people who can get paid to do something they are so passionate about, and in which they are given such autonomy.” 

*The Lange ‘qualified privilege’ defence is named after the Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1997 defamation case brought by New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange against the ABC.

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