Port Stephens is at the centre of two NSW Supreme Court defamation cases

PORT Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie is suing two people for defamation after a Facebook post alleged he touched two women on the buttocks at a Nelson Bay business awards night.

Confirmation of yet another online defamation case centred on Port Stephens Council comes after a NSW judge in May warned that ordinary people were increasingly finding themselves in the notoriously complex and expensive area of defamation law because of social media.

Cr MacKenzie, fellow Port Stephens councillors Geoff Dingle and Paul Le Mottee, Labor mayoral hopeful Des Maslen, Dungog councillor Linda Bowden and Port Stephens retail assistant Katrina Harvey, are named as plaintiffs and defendants in two separate defamation cases with an email and a Facebook post as their starting points.

People posting on Facebook and in blogs are most likely to become embroiled in expensive legal action and threats, but most cases settle to avoid the cost of a trial, Judge Judith Gibson said.

Defending a court action for defamation can cost from $100,000 to $1.1 million, figures show.

In April Cr MacKenzie initiated a NSW Supreme Court defamation case alleging a Facebook post by Ms Harvey on October 12, 2016, carried the false imputations he fondled two women in their 20s without their consent at a Nelson Bay club and was not a man Port Stephens residents should vote for.

The Facebook post alleged Cr MacKenzie touched the women on the buttocks and lower hips in a hallway at the West Nelson Bay Diggers Club as he made his way to a function room where he was guest speaker at an annual business awards night.

On Tuesday Cr MacKenzie said he could not comment on the case because it was before the court, but he denied touching the women and said the allegation was “just laughable”.

In her defence filed with the court Ms Harvey admitted writing the “Friends” Facebook post in a private group after attending the awards night. She is defending the matter.

Port Stephens Council mayoral hopeful and Labor candidate Des Maslen, who is also being sued by Cr MacKenzie after re-posting Ms Harvey’s post, said he was “vigorously defending” the matter.

He sold a cruiser he had wanted for decades, and had only owned for a year, to fund the defamation case in an area of law that is notoriously expensive, Mr Maslen said.

Cr MacKenzie has previously settled a defamation case launched against fellow Port Stephens councillor Geoff Dingle over an email sent by Cr Dingle to Dungog councillor Linda Bowden, which she forwarded to other Dungog councillors.

Port Stephens councillor Paul Le Mottee has accused Cr Dingle of defaming him in the email by falsely claiming Cr MacKenzie secured Cr Le Mottee’s loyalty by “arranging” approvals for Cr Le Mottee’s development projects.

In a NSW Supreme Court claim Cr Le Mottee said the email carried the false imputation he was corrupt because of an alleged relationship with Cr MacKenzie.

In June Cr Bowden’s partner Ken Kneipp succeeded in being removed from the case after Cr Le Mottee originally included him as a defendant and alleged he was involved in distributing the email to Dungog councillors.

Cr Bowden said she would vigorously defend the proceedings brought against her by Cr Le Mottee.

“I believe I acted within my role as councillor and considered that I had a duty to send the email sent to me by Cr Dingle to other councillors on the Dungog council, which I did on a confidential basis. As the proceedings are ongoing I do not intend to make any further comment at this time,” Cr Bowden said.

In May NSW Judge Judith Gibson, who compiles the details of all defamation cases in Australia for legal publication LexisNexis, said “claims based on publications on the internet, emails and on social media, are now far more common than claims against traditional media defendants”.

Ordinary people were increasingly find themselves defending defamation actions in court, and representing themselves in a complex and expensive area of law. In NSW there is no limit to the amount a court can order in costs to the winner of a defamation complaint.