Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is "Baptist" an insult?

Can you be sued in Australia for mistakenly calling somebody a Baptist? We might find out, if Melinda Tankard Reist follows through on her promise to take Jennifer Wilson to court. In addition to being legally threatened for calling Tankard Reist a Baptist, Wilson is getting heat for saying Tankard Reist has been dishonest about it.

It's pretty silly, if you ask me. If Tankard Reist isn't a Baptist and takes offense at being called one, she can say so publicly. I don't see why she'd want to sue somebody over it. What kind of PR move would that be?

From what I can tell, Tankard Reist's public attitude towards her religious views is anything but forthright. That could make it hard for her to build a case against Wilson. It also makes it unlikely that she'd want to take Wilson to court, since her religious views and sympathies would take center stage.

Even if it's an idle threat, the threat itself is a powerful tool. As Russell Blackford has been warning in a series of blog posts recently, a lawsuit like this could financially ruin Wilson. We have to wonder how often vital and sincere debate has been stifled by legal bluffs. It may be too easy for people with money (or the right connections) to use empty threats to silence those without the means to defend themselves. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that there's a good way around the problem.

Russell wants to deter people from filing defamation cases, but that might do more harm than good. It could make it easier for real defamation cases to go unprosecuted, and it won't stop people from making idle threats. Unless the court is going to relieve defendants of court costs (or postpone them until and unless there is a conviction), the problem isn't going to go away.