$105,000 awarded for defamatory tweets
The District Court of NSW has ordered a Defendant who posted defamatory statements on Twitter and Facebook about a local school teacher, to pay $105,000 in compensatory damages .This decision, the first of its kind in Australia, sends a clear message that personal attacks using social media will not be tolerated.
The Plaintiff, Ms Christine Mickle, an esteemed teacher with an established and excellent reputation and with many years experience, taught in the music and arts department at Orange High School. In November 2012 students approached the School Principal to request that there be a re-naming of the music centre as the “Mrs Mickle Music Centre” in honour of the Plaintiff and her history of devotion to her students and classes. The Defendant was an ex-student of Orange High School, and son of a former Orange High School music and arts teacher who left the school in 2008 in order to attend to person issues. It is understood from media reporting of the case, that the Defendant took to social media upon learning of Mrs Mickle’s recognition. The Defendant published abusive and defamatory posts about the Plaintiff on Twitter and Facebook.
It was submitted to the court that the Defendant held a grudge against the Plaintiff based on the belief that she had something to do with his father leaving the school. There was no evidence to substantiate this belief.
The remarks made on social media were brought to the Plaintiff’s attention by the then School Principal who felt it appropriate to inform the Plaintiff of the untruthful and damaging remarks.
District Court Judge Elkaim accepted that the effect of the publications on the Plaintiff was “devastating”. This was evidenced by the fact that the Plaintiff immediately took sick leave and is now only returning to work on a limited basis. The Plaintiff submitted that but for the defamatory publications she would have continued to teach for a further 7 years until she reached the age of 65.
Accepting the Plaintiff’s evidence Elkaim SC DCJ awarded $85,000 in compensatory damages which flowed from the established defamatory publications. Elkaim SC DCJ highlighted the purpose of an award of damages in defamation cases as:
“The compensation is intended to vindicate the person’s reputation in the eyes of the general community and compensate the person for the distress and insult felt”.
It was held that the behaviour of the Defendant was less sincere that seemed at first. At the end of November 2012 the Plaintiff’s solicitor wrote to the Defendant. With no response, a further letter was sent on 12 December 2012. A reply was received on 20 December 2012 containing an apology and an undertaking to remove all comments referring to the Plaintiff off his social media pages.
The Defendant’s sincerity however did not extend beyond his initial reply. The Defendant filed two defences in the proceeding including the defence of truth, which were ultimately struck out or withdrawn because they had no substance or truth. The Defendant also failed to appear before the court in relation to the matter.
Elkaim SC DJC, therefore awarded a further amount of $20,000 in aggravated damages due to the conduct of the Defendant. The total award of damages was $105,000.
A warning from the court
This case highlights the fact that the principles of defamation law apply equally to statements made on social media as well as to publication in other forms of media. Elkaim SC DCJ warned in his closing statement:
“When defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread. They spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication. I have taken that into account in the assessment of damages that I previously made”
Points to consider about social media posts in the workplace
- The use of social media has become prevalent in the workplace.
- Employers and employees need to be aware that social media posts may have devastating consequences.
- In a society where individual and business reputation is important, employers should ensure that they have a strong social media policy not only to educate staff on the serious consequences of posting on social media pages but also to seek to protect individual employees’ personal and professional reputations and seek to protect them from damaging postings on social media.
- Where social media posts result in defamation proceedings, the court is likely to take into account the grapevine effect of this form of communication when assessing damages.