Parents warned about defaming teachers on social media

Defamation is a serious issue.
Defamation is a serious issue.  

 Teachers are amazing, but sometimes you might not agree with everything they do. You might even be mad about something your child has told you about their teacher. However, the split second decision to vent about it on social media could have far reaching consequences.

Australia's leading cyber safety expert, Susan McLean, admits that the issue of parents posting negative comments about teachers online "is becoming more and more common". It is something she deals with on a weekly basis across all levels and types of schools Australia-wide. McLean says, "I've certainly seen legal letters being sent. I've certainly seen parents being pulled into the principal's office and basically told to pull their head in."

When parents fail to heed advice about using restraint on social media, things can quickly escalate. Keith Heggart, Organiser with the NSW/ACT Independent Education Union, tells of a case where a parent posted "outlandish stories" to a school's Facebook page about "a very experienced and very good teacher", based on what their child had told them.

The parent's disparaging comments were so serious that they prompted an investigation based around child protection laws. Even though the teacher was eventually cleared of all wrong doing, Heggart attests that the three month investigation caused her "immense distress". Not only did her professional reputation take a battering, but the teacher also suffered anxiety.

McLean, in her role as an advisor to schools on cyber safety, agrees that "online abuse and defamatory comments have a significant impact on people's mental health." It is not uncommon for teachers to take sick leave while dealing with the emotional and psychological stress caused by allegations made via social media.

Apart from the mental health problems suffered by teachers in these situations, parents who post negative comments about teachers on social media are also at risk of legal proceedings. A charge of defamation would be very hard to defend against as the onus would be on the parent to prove the absolute truth of both the statement made and all its implications.

As Professor Barbara McDonald from Sydney University's School of Law explains, "it's actually very easy to defame someone if you say something which makes other people think less of them, and it's not just the literal meaning of what you say, it's any implication that comes with it." As an example, a parent might put up a post or tweet that their child's teacher is always absent or always sick. Professor McDonald says this could make "other people pity them or shun them or avoid them or just think they're not as good at their job".

Professor McDonald also points out that parents don't actually have to name the teacher or school in order to be charged with defamation. If the people they are publishing the comments to can piece together the facts and work out who is being spoken about, that is sufficient evidence of defamation. Likewise, if a parent shares a post written by somebody else, they can also be charged with defamation because they are then themselves conveying the negative message and its implications to others.

A negative comment about a teacher or school posted on social media can prove very costly. In a 2013 case a high school teacher was awarded $105,000 in damages when a former student of the school tweeted defamatory comments about her. In making the judgement, District Court Judge Michael Elkaim made particular reference to how easily comments can spread on social media, saying "Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication."

So what should parents do if they have a problem with a teacher? The advice from all experts in this area is to simply follow the school's procedures. Schools will outline these at the start of the school year and they are fairly standard across all schools. First, approach the teacher. Often, a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up quickly and easily. If the matter can't be resolved through a meeting with the teacher, the Principal is the next point of contact. Then, if the matter needs to be taken further, parents can go to the department, diocese or whoever the administering body is for the school. Venting on social media is never recommended and will only exacerbate the situation.

At the end of the day, as cyber safety expert McLean points out, it's all about respect, and teaching our children the way that they should behave. Parents need to lead by example. McLean says, "You don't have to agree with people, but we need to be able to show respect to each other." Failing to do so could prove detrimental to everyone involved.