Oxford-MLS Research Partnership Grant

Free speech, confusion and the marketplace of ideas

Outline of the research project

A standard rationale for free speech is that truth will emerge through the 'marketplace of ideas', a rationale that some have associated with the 19th century liberal-utilitarian philosopher JS Mill but is also explicitly stated by Holmes J in Abrams v US (1919). Given this rationale, it is puzzling to observe how much truth-endangering confusion is tolerated in areas of media and communications law. Consider, for instance, defamation law, trade mark law and the law of passing off. These areas of law are supposedly concerned with confusion (at least as indicators of legally cognizable harms). But in fact they delineate their scope for controlling confusion far from comprehensively, using tests such as the 'ordinary reasonable' person or average consumer to determine just whose confusion the law should seek to address (so persons whose conclusions are deemed 'farfetched and fanciful' appear to be left out of account under these standard tests). Further they erect a range of thresholds and defences that apply notwithstanding the likelihood that the communication will lead to confusion and even in the face of evidence of actual confusion (for instance the 'actual malice' standard for public figures in US defamation law and the 'public interest' defence under the 2013 UK defamation statute; the 'use as a trade mark' threshold in Australian trade mark law and the 'fair use' defence to trade mark infringement in the US and the UK). This project will enable us to interrogate closely the multiple ways in which Anglo-Australian as well as American media and communications law allows for confusion, the marketplace of ideas rationale notwithstanding – and also to consider the possible reasons for this divergence as well as some possible reforms.

Melbourne Law School
Andrew Kenyon – Professor of Law and Joint Director Centre for Media and Communications Law
Megan Richardson – Professor of Law and Joint Director Centre for Media and Communications Law and Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia

Oxford Law
Graeme Dinwoodie – Professor of Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law and Director of the Oxford Intellectual Property Research Centre
Jacob Rowbottom – Tutorial Fellow in Law, Praelector and CUF Lecturer in Law