Think before you Tweet

A New South Wales former school student has been ordered to pay damages to his school teacher for comments he made on Facebook and Twitter.

The ruling, which is the first of its kind in Australia to proceed to full trial, has demonstrated potential liability for anyone considering publishing defamatory content on social media.

District Court Judge Michael Elkaim ordered that Andrew Farley, a former pupil at Orange High School, pay damages for making false allegations about music teacher Christine Mickle.

Mr Farley was the son of former head of music and art at the school who was replaced by Ms Mickle on an acting basis in 2008.

In 2012 Mr Farley began posting defamatory comments on Facebook and Twitter about Ms Mickle which, the court heard, were based on beliefs that Ms Mickle 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 Ms Mickle’s attention by the then School Principal who felt it appropriate to inform the teacher of the untruthful and damaging remarks.

The court was told how the defamatory comments had a “devastating effect” on the music teacher, who immediately took sick leave and only returned to work in 2013 on a limited basis.

Judge Elkaim said the apparent sincerity of an apology by Mr Farley was quickly contradicted when he attempted to argue that the comments were true. Mr Farley originally removed the comments and apologised in December 2012 but only after ignoring an initial letter from Ms Mickle’s lawyers.

Ms Mickle submitted that but for the defamatory comments she would have continued to teach for a further 7 years until she reached the age of 65.

Judge Elkaim accepted Ms Mickle’s evidence recognising that it was common knowledge that once defamatory publications on social media were published they spread very quickly. He ordered Mr Farley to pay $85,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in aggravated damages.

The ruling highlights that normal defamation laws do apply on Twitter and other social media outlets. Indeed anything published on social media which has the prospect of harming someone’s reputation could result in an individual being liable.

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