A gay refugee activist who is being sued for defamation by Australia’s defence minister has received more than $100,000 in donations to fight his case.
Defence minister Peter Dutton issued defamation proceedings against Shane Bazzi in April after the latter referred to him as a “rape apologist” on social media.
The defence minister is seeking aggravated damages and costs from Bazzi, who is currently unemployed and recently had his benefits cut off due to a change in government policy.
Because of the high cost of launching a legal defence, Green Party candidate David Shoebridge set up a crowdfunding campaign aiming to raise $150,000. On Wednesday (26 May), the crowdfunder had raised more than $119,000.
“One of the most powerful men in the country, Peter Dutton, is suing me for defamation,” Bazzi tweeted in April.
“I need your support. If you have the means, please donate to my legal fund and share this far and wide. Any support is greatly appreciated.”
Shoebridge’s crowdfunder said Bazzi was being sued “for expressing an opinion, by way of critique and commentary, that the politician does not like.”
The Green Party politician characterised Dutton’s legal action as “an attempt to silence Shane and others like him from expressing a particular view”.
He wrote: “Historically, defamation laws have too often been used by the powerful (including politicians) as a tool to stop free speech and silence critics.
“Defending defamation threats is very expensive, meaning many people are often forced to retract their statements even if they are true or an expression of an honest opinion.”
Shoebridge said freedom of speech should protect a member of the public’s right to express an opinion about a political figure, and said politicians should “expect robust critique and commentary as part of the job.”
If the crowdfunder exceeds its goal, additional funds will be donated to the Refugee Advice and Casework Service and to the Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Shoebridge said.
Peter Dutton’s legal action ‘raises concerns about freedom of speech’
Bazzi’s solicitors said they plan to “vigorously defend” the activist against Dutton’s defamation lawsuit in a press release.
“Mr Bazzi expressed an honest opinion on Twitter that Peter Dutton was a ‘rape apologist’. This opinion was based on a number of publicly reported statements that had been attributed to Mr Dutton. Statements that were about matters in the public interest and that would undoubtedly provoke a number of different opinions, including that expressed by Mr Bazzi,” O’Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors said in a statement.
“A robust and vibrant democracy like ours should cultivate and encourage a diverse array of expressions of opinion on matters of public interest.”
The solicitors said Dutton’s legal action “raises genuine concerns about freedom of speech in Australia”, adding: “While there must be some limits to that freedom, we will always defend the right of people to hold opinions, especially against politicians.”
The defamation proceedings come after Brittany Higgins, a former staffer in Scott Morrison’s government, claimed she was raped by a male colleague in Parliament House in 2019.
In February, Dutton faced fierce backlash when he said he hadn’t been provided with the “she said, he said details” of Higgins’ allegations.
On 25 February, Bazzi shared an article on Twitter from 2019 in which Dutton was quoted as saying that women were falsely claiming they had been raped and needed an abortion in order to qualify for refugee status in Australia.
Bazzi tweeted the article and characterised Dutton as a “rape apologist”. Dutton later said he would take legal action against a number of people for “defamatory” statements on social media.
“I’m going to start to pick out some of them to sue, because we need to have… a respectful public debate,” Dutton said in March.
“A lot of lazy journalists pick up these tweets and believe that they’re representative of the larger community view, when they’re not.”
Larissa Waters, leader of the Green Party in the Senate, had also described Dutton as a “rape apologist” on social media following his “she said, he said” comment.
On 24 March, she issued an apology on Twitter, saying she had made “false and defamatory statements” about the defence minister.
PinkNews has contacted Peter Dutton for comment.