Student ordered to pay $100,000 over Twitter and Facebook defamation of teacher

Student ordered to pay $100,000 over Twitter defamation of teacher
Music teacher in Australia wins case against former student who defamed her on Twitter and Facebook

By Jonathan Pearlman, Sydney9:07AM GMT 05 Mar 2014

A music teacher in Australia has been awarded £57,000 ($AUS105,000) in damages for defamation on Twitter and Facebook after she was targeted by a former student who "bore a grudge".

Andrew Farley, 20, the son of the school’s head of the music and arts department, wrote defamatory messages about Christine Mickle, 58, who replaced Mr Farley’s father. He had never been taught by the popular teacher but posted the messages a year after graduating, suggesting she was responsible for the fate of his father, who stood down in 2008 for health reasons.

"For some reason it seems that the defendant bears a grudge against the plaintiff, apparently based on a belief that she had something to do with his father leaving the school," said district court judge Michael Elkaim.

"There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that belief."

The case comes ahead of a separate defamation action in Australia brought by the Liberal party pollsters Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby, who also work as Tory advisers. The duo are suing a former Labor MP, Mike Kelly, over a tweet accusing them of introducing Australia to "push polling", or using loaded questions to sway poll outcomes.

In Britain, Sally Bercow, wife of the Commons Speaker, was last year forced to make a public apology and pay damages to Lord McAlpine after the High Court found a tweet by her which falsely linked him to allegations of child sexual abuse was defamatory. She was reportedly forced to pay about £15,000, plus costs.

In the latest case in Australia, the court ruled that the social media comments in late 2012 by Mr Farley, a former student at Orange High School, had a "devastating effect" on the teacher, who took sick leave before eventually returning to work on a limited basis.

"When defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread," the judge said.

"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."

Mr Farley ignored a letter from Ms Mickle's lawyers in November 2012 and only removed the comments and apologised "unreservedly" after he received another letter the following month.

The court questioned the sincerity of Mr Farley’s apology, noting he had tried to argue in his defence that the comments were true.

"The defence of truth when it is spurious is particularly hurtful to a person who has been the subject of such unsubstantiated allegations," Judge Elkaim said.


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