Social media misfire – online petition set up to support suspended principal leads to defamation case

Social media misfire – online petition set up to support suspended principal leads to defamation case

21 August 2020 Authored by: Annie Smeaton, Jack Bristed   |   Topics: Education and training

Social media is a necessary but risky medium in which schools communicate. While social media provides schools with greater exposure and facilitates communication with staff and parents, schools need to have strong policies and other safeguards for social media use.

This comes as a suspended school principal took a number of parents to court over their comments on a petition set up by the president of the school’s parents and citizens association, leading to over $180,000 awarded for damages.

In Brose v Baluskas [2020] QDC 015, a Tamborine Mountain school found itself in hot water after the president of its parents and citizens association established an online petition on Change.org and created a private Facebook page calling for the Minister of Education to reinstate the school’s principal, who had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into alleged inappropriate conduct.

While both the petition and private Facebook page garnered a mass of support for the principal, around nine percent were highly critical and unsupportive of the principal and many expressed this through emotive, provocative and abusive language, resulting in both forums being shut down after only six days.

After the principal was ultimately reinstated following the investigation into her alleged misconduct, she commenced legal proceedings against eight of the 34 individuals who had posted criticism of her on the online discussion forums, claiming $220,000 from each.

While the principal settled the matter against three individuals for a total of $182,500, another two were found to have defamed the principal and ordered to pay $3,000 each as well as being permanently restrained from making such defamatory comments again.

Conclusion

While the school was not named as a party in this case, more generally schools can be liable for the actions of their staff and agents, and even if schools are not named as a party in proceedings, there can still be considerable reputational damage for schools in matters like this.

This case serves as a timely reminder for schools to ensure they have clear and workable social media policies in place, managing their online presence and ensuring that they limit legal liability and protect their staff.

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