Store Eschews Cruise Views: Ruse?

According to a report in today’s paper, a couple of major Australian booksellers are refusing to sell a new Tom Cruise biography that is critical of Scientology.

Book retailer Dymocks says it will not sell the biography.

“We take all accusations of defamation very seriously and, as a result, we won’t be stocking the book,” a spokeswoman said. “We will continue to assess the situation as it develops.”

Angus & Robertson spokeswoman Kate Jones said: “There are certain legal issues that have occurred overseas and with all of the risks involved we will not be stocking it.”

My recollection of defamation law is admittedly hazy. But this strikes me as odd for two reasons.

  1. I’m pretty sure that unlike an individual, a small group of people, or a corporation, a religion does not have standing to sue for defamation (otherwise, one might think another church would have had something to say about Nigel Cawthorne’s Sex Lives of the Popes).
  2. I was under the impression that booksellers were generally protected from defamation actions by the principle of ‘innocent dissemination’. I certainly can’t recall a prominent case in Australia in which booksellers have had to pay damages for defamation.

I can’t help wondering whether defamation is really a fig leaf for other commercial factors at play.

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10 Responses to Store Eschews Cruise Views: Ruse?

  1. There was some book written years ago by some ALP speech writer in which Peter Costello and Tony Abbott managed to sue for defamation. The title was something about Jerusalem. In the book he intimated that Costello and Abbott were promiscuous. C & A won.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Yep, there are plenty of defamation cases in Australia. But as you’ll recall, the plaintiffs in that case were four individuals (not a religion), and the defendants were the author (Bob Ellis) and publisher (Random House)… not the booksellers.

  3. This looks like a panic overreaction by an ill-informed executive, similar to how privacy legislation led to many ill-informed decisions by organisations.

  4. My copy of Australian Media Law says that distributors of defamatory media can be liable, which is presumably why bookshops comply with recalll notices rather than take advantage of increased demand for a book with defamatory material.

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    Andrew, I thought they can could to be ‘innocent disseminators’ until the plaintiffs win an injunction.

  6. Jeremy Gans says:

    Victoria’s Defamation Act (which I believe follows the national uniform model) says that the defence of innocent dissemination is only available if the disseminator ‘neither knew, nor ought reasonably to have known, that the matter was defamatory; and’ the disseminator’s ‘lack of knowledge was not due to any negligence on the part of the’ disseminator. I can see why Dymocks was worried.

  7. Jeremy Gans says:

    Also, the only people excluded from suing for defamation are large, private, profit-oriented corporations. Scientology is certainly large and private, but whether or not it is profit-oriented (or, to use the legislation’s definition of not-for-profit: ‘the objects for which it is formed do not include obtaining financial gain for its members or corporators’) is another matter (and one defamation laws spook me from weighing into!) Anyway, Tom Cruise and other individuals named in the book could certainly sue.

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    So our defamation laws are in fact even more draconian than I had thought. Even if they don’t have a strong case, a deep-pocketed plaintiff can nonetheless scare booksellers into refusing to distribute. Wonderful.

    (On your second point, I still hold out hope that the court would not agree that “person” in the Act includes a religion.)

  9. Jeremy Gans says:

    No such luck, Andrew. I’m no expert on any of this, but it appears that the High Court resolved these issues in Scientology’s favour a long time ago, ruling that the Church of Scientology (then registered as a foreign corporation in Victoria) is – for the purposes of the tax system, at least – to be treated as a religion. See Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic) 1983 154 Clr 120 [1983] HCA 40; (1983) 154 CLR 120 (27 October 1983).

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think either of these aspects of Australia’s defamation laws (on religions as plaintiffs and bookstore owners as defendants) is bad. Rather, any chilling effect of defamation law should be blamed on the law’s substance (especially its defences) and its dispute resolution processes (especially any that can allow a deep-pocketed plaintiff to drag out an unmeritorious claim just to delay or prevent a publication that they didn’t like.)

  10. Scientology is relentless in its pursuit of any persons who are critical of it. They have harrassed ordinary individuals who were critical of it online and undertaken dirty tricks to have people lose employment. Scientology has extremely deep pockets and is able to inflict damage over many years.

    If i had a book business would be inclined to cave into any threats from scientology even though the case for defamation or anything was without merit. Having your business destroyed by a wealthy cult over a book about an actor would not be a choice I’d make.

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