By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
A western Sydney teenager whose photo went viral is suing several media outlets for defamation.
Ali Mosslmani, known as Ziggy, was photographed at a friend’s 18th birthday last year and was soon made into a meme reproduced by the Daily Mail Australia, the Daily Telegraph and KIIS radio.
One of the publications generated over 11,000 comments, 10,000 likes and 1.7m views. Ziggy commenced civil proceedings on the basis that the publications made him out to be a “ridiculous person” by describing his haircut as “silly”, “ridiculous” and “horrendous”.
Under the Defamation Act NSW, a person may succeed in proceedings for defamation if they are the subject of a false publication which adversely affects their reputation.
The publication must be such that a reasonable person who saw or heard it would think less of the complaining party.
There is no requirement that the publication must originate from the publisher – reproducing another’s publication may be enough.
However, a publication will not amount to defamation if:
- The information is substantially true,
- The information is a matter of honestly held opinion related to a matter of public interest, such will be the case if you are talking about people engaged in the political landscape,
- The information is published with the consent of the person defamed,
- The information wasn’t very important and it is unlikely that the person’s reputation will actually be damages, or
- The repetition of the defamatory information was innocent, in that media outlets did not know that it was defamatory, and the right course of action may be a correction or apology.
NSW District Court Judge, Judith Gibson, has noted that the memes “make the point that the plaintiff’s striking mullet haircut has generated a great deal of interest on the internet, most of it humorous, and some of it in the form of clever observations, such as the ‘Pythagoras’ direction [digitally added to the plaintiff’s head] in one of the memes”.
The media outlets are defending the action on the basis that, “The plaintiff, by reason of his mullet hairstyle, has justifiably exposed himself to ridicule by the public”.
The judge’s preliminary remarks are to the effect that the publications were ridiculing Ziggy’s haircut, rather than Ziggy himself.
The Judge foreshadowed rejecting the claim that the publications defamed Ziggy by suggesting he was “hideously ugly”. Her Honour noted that, “Viewed as a whole the [publication] … is commenting about his hairstyle being ridiculous, and this is not the same as saying that the plaintiff is ugly”.
She further noted that Ziggy’s claim had been “overpleaded” – designed to claim as many matters of personal offence as possible.
The Judge commented that the only potential imputation was that “the plaintiff is a ridiculous person because he wears a controversial haircut”. She will determine the existence of any such inference and whether it amounts to defamation in due course.
Perhaps Ziggy has been a little unlucky by drawing Judge Gibson, who has published papers critical of the rise in defamation cases over recent years.
In one of her reports, Her Honour concludes by saying:
“… a surge in defamation actions, particularly internet and electronic publication actions, has led to the Australian court system being swamped, and the balance between freedom of speech and protection of reputation will become increasingly difficult to maintain.”
Only time will tell whether there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for young Ziggy.