An Australian student is being forced to pay nearly $100,000 after doing the Internet wrong by defaming a teacher on social media. Andrew Farley, the son of the former head of music and drama at Orange High School in New South Wales, apparently “bore a grudge” against his father’s replacement, Christine Mickle.
In what sounds like an episode of Summer Heights High come to life, Farley, who was 20 at the time, published defamatory messages on Twitter and Facebook claiming that Mickle was responsible for his dad’s poor health, which led to his leaving the school in 2008. Mickle never taught the younger Farley, The Telegraph reports.
"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 court ruled that Farley’s comments were “devastating” to Mickle, who left the school due to sickness before returning on a limited basis. Mickle’s lawyers sent Farley a letter in November 2012 asking him to remove the comments, which he only did after receiving a second letter the next month.
Farley had tried to argue in court that his comments were true, which ultimately worked against him and led to the AUS$105,000 (USD$95,100) payout. By ignoring those legal orders, Farley was ordered to pay $85,000 in compensatory damages, and another $20,000 in aggravated damages.
To help avoid Farley’s fate, The Guardian published a handy list of tips on how not to get sued for Twitter defamation. These days, everyone is a publisher and no, you don’t really have a right to freedom of speech if you know the comments you’re making are false.
"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."
The first “Twibel” case in the United States (that’s a fusing of Twitter and libel) was ruled in January in favor of Courtney Love after she defended a tweet that was considered defamatory. Love was accused of libeling lawyer Rhonda Holmes, tweeting that Holmes took a bribe. Holmes and her legal team were unable to prove that Love knowingly tweeted false information, establishing a labyrinth of a legal precedent for inevitable future Twibel cases.