In Auckland last week, Joe Karam, a former New Zealand international rugby player, was awarded $535,000 plus $500,000 of legal costs in a highly publicised defamation case, making it one of the largest defamation awards in New Zealand history. But while this may be a legal victory for Karam, we should be concerned by this ruling. As with all defamation cases, the Karam case raises important questions around freedom of speech and democracy, and what we are allowed and not allowed to say in public.
The Karam case, heard by a single judge in Auckland High Court, was brought against two men who were accused of launching an ‘all-out assault’ on Karam’s reputation because of his support for David Bain, a convicted murderer. Bain was convicted of murdering his entire family, including his father Robin, in 1995. His conviction was later quashed by the Privy Council before he was finally acquitted following a retrial in 2009.
Karam, who championed Bain’s fight to clear his name, sued Kent Parker and Vic Purkiss over statements made on the Facebook Justice for Robin Bain page and the Counterspin website in 2010. The comments alleged that Karam was dishonest, lacked integrity, only supported Bain for financial gain, and had defrauded the legal-aid system.
In her ruling, Justice Courtney identified 50 defamatory statements published on Facebook and Counterspin by Parker and Purkiss. Some of the remarks compared Karam to a Nazi leader, and one used his name to coin a word, ‘Karamalisation’, which described how he allegedly misrepresented facts. Justice Courtney accepted Karam’s claim that the public campaign against him was the ‘worst four years’ of his life and that ‘few aspects of Mr Karam’s reputation were left untouched’. In awarding costs and damages, she also ordered that all defamatory messages be removed from Facebook and Counterspin.
This isn’t the first defamation case brought by Karam. Prior to his case against Parker and Purkiss, Karam had already successfully sued publishing house Fairfax and the Sunday Star Times for defamation. The case against Fairfax was settled out of court and the Sunday Star Times was forced to publish a full apology for printing an article in 2009 which drew attention to Purkiss and Parker’s claims and provided a link to the Counterspin website.