Several recent cases have provided stark reminders that if people choose to post defamatory comments or engage in bullying on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, then the courts will, in appropriate cases, award damages against them.
Further, the award of compensatory damages can be significant, given the ‘grapevine’ effect and the ease with which the communicated content can be republished.
In this recent case, the defendant Ms Greeuw was ordered to pay $12,500 in compensation to her ex-husband Mr Dabrowski, after she published defamatory comments about him on Facebook. She accused him of subjecting her to years of domestic violence, comments which turned out to be unsubstantiated.
Judge Bowden said he had ‘no doubt that the post caused Mr Dabrowski personal distress, humiliation and hurt and harm to his reputation’, and that the comments also impacted on Mr Dabrowski’s personal relationships.
Importantly, Ms Greeuw was ordered to pay compensation despite the fact that the comments were made to a limited audience and were deleted from her Facebook page after 6 weeks.
In March 2014, Mr Farley, a former high school student, was ordered to pay $105,000 to a teacher for writing defamatory remarks about her on Twitter, alleging that she was directly responsible for taking over his father’s teaching position at the school.
The important factors in the case included that there was ‘absolutely no evidence to substantiate’ Mr Farley’s claims, and the effect of the publication on the teacher, Ms Mickle, was ‘devastating’ as she was forced to take sick leave and could ultimately only return to work on a limited basis.
Mr Farley had also ignored a letter from Ms Mickle’s lawyers in November 2012 and only removed the comments and apologised after he received another letter the following month. However, by then the damage was done.
In 2012, the Adelaide Magistrates Court awarded Ms Burtenshaw, a former principal, $40,000 over a defamatory Facebook page created by two parents of students at her school. This was the maximum sum the Court’s jurisdiction allowed.
The Facebook page was titled ‘We do not want Sue back at Coober Pedy at all!!!!’ and claimed that Ms Burtenshaw was corrupt, bullied staff and parents and behaved inappropriately. Ms Burtenshaw claimed that the comments were an attack on her ‘professional ability, morals and ethics’.
Magistrate Morris was ‘satisfied that the plaintiff and her family have suffered personally from public odium in the local community at Coober Pedy’ and that the postings ‘contributed to the unjust and unfair decision of the employer to suspend the plaintiff from the position as principal’.
In this case, three employees of DP World lodged bullying applications in the Fair Work Commission against several other employees and union officials, after they posted various Facebook messages making insulting allegations about them and calling them ‘laggers’ and ‘scabs’.
DP World sought to strike out some of these allegations on the basis that the alleged behaviour was not “at work”, for the purposes of the Fair Work Act 2009.
The Commission however rejected this argument and held that ‘the worker need not be “at work” at the time the comments are posted, it would suffice if they accessed the comments later while ‘at work’.
These judgments are a warning to all Facebook users. Further, they demonstrate the importance for employers to have in place proper policies and training programs, to ensure that their employees are aware of the risks of posting inappropriate messages on social media.
Importantly, comments posted online may be found to be defamatory even when they are made to a limited audience and subsequently removed. The potential reach of the bullying laws has also been expanded, given the ease with which employees can now access social media on devices at work.