Orange is a large rural town in Western New South Wales and its High School became a site for a landmark defamation verdict. Yes, this case happened a while ago, but in our new age of social media, an interesting case and a cautionary tale.
The defendant, a 20 year old former student at Orange High School apparently held a grudge against the plaintiff, Mrs Mickle, a 58 year old music teacher, who was promoted to head of the music department when the defendant’s father, who held that position, became ill. The defendant did his Higher School Certificate at that school in 2011 and had never been taught by the plaintiff.
The plaintiff had given many years of devotion to students and teaching music generally. Her reputation for that went beyond the school and the Principal of Orange High School was aware of that reputation when the plaintiff was hired. So adored was Mrs Mickle that the students at the school wanted to re-name the school’s music centre after her.
In any event, the defendant believed that the plaintiff had something to do with his father leaving the school, even though there was no evidence to substantiate that belief. Nevertheless, acting on that belief, the defendant posted a number of defamatory comments about the plaintiff on Twitter and Facebook. The posts must have been seriously defamatory because they were not repeated in the judgment, a sign that the judge did not want to repeat the defamations, presumably out of deference to the plaintiff.
The effect on Mrs Mickle was devastating. She was particularly hurt by suggestions that she may have been responsible for the ill health of the defendant’s father, which suggestions had no substance at all. Mrs Mickle was so devastated that she had to stop work and at the time of the trial, where the defendant did not appear, she had only returned to work on a limited basis.
Justice Elkaim heard evidence from the plaintiff and three others, then awarded compensatory damages to the plaintiff of $85,000 plus aggravated damages of $20,000. The aggravation was caused because the defendant originally filed a defence that asserted truth and had given an insincere apology.
The judgment rocked the social media world. It was the first substantial verdict in Australia from these social media publications, and a warning to students, teachers and Tweeters everywhere. The judge ended with this snippet for plaintiffs:
“when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread. They are 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.”
No doubt that this will be quoted in defamation claims across the land in future. Particularly when plaintiffs face the problem of not knowing precisely how many people read the internet publications they complain of. Alas for Generation Y and their addiction to social media: perhaps Tweeting about teachers is not such a good idea….