Free speech upheld in defamation case brought by Bitou municipality

Posted 09 June 2015 Written by Ciaran Ryan
Category Constitution

Can a municipality sue for defamation? Bitou municipality in Plettenberg Bay thought it could after being defamed by two individuals in a previous court case. Judge Jeanette Traverso of the Western Cape High Court slapped it down.

Bitou municipality thought it had been so badly defamed in affidavits and oral argument in an earlier court case that it decided to sue the perpetrators for damages.

The defamers – Memory Booysen and Paul Jordaan – alleged in their court papers and oral argument (in the earlier case) that the municipality had deliberately attempted to deceive the court by making statements which it knew to be untrue or misleading, and had made reckless and irresponsible allegations that bordered on fraud and perjury.

Presiding in this case was Judge Jeanette Traverso – the same judge who sat on the Dewani murder trial last year in the Western Cape.

The question Traverso had to decide was whether a municipality can be defamed. There was no argument that the statements made were defamatory. It just needed to be decided whether the common law extended to municipalities.

The municipality argued that it should enjoy the same rights and legal standing as political parties – which can sue for defamation. Judge Traverso disagreed, arguing that “any subject must be free to express his opinion about the management of the local affairs without fear of legal consequences.”

The matter was decided in favour of Booysen and Jordaan – municipalities, as organs of the State, cannot sue for defamation.

See the judgment here.

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