Q: Our school has Facebook and Twitter accounts that we encourage our governors, staff and pupils to connect with and follow, respectively, to keep up to date with news about our school and its achievements. A former employee who left the school’s employment in July and who still has a child at the school, has made offensive remarks via the school’s Facebook and Twitter pages and on her own Facebook page about the quality of teaching at the school in one of the subjects, because her child did not achieve the expected levels of progress in that subject. Is this defamation and what can we do about it?
A: There is always a risk, unless posting controls are in place on the Facebook and Twitter accounts that belong to the School, that allowing access to the school’s social media exposes the school to adverse comments from anyone. Defamation involves making a statement about a person that is 1) published and 2) tends to reduce that person’s reputation in the opinion of the public at large, to expose them to victimisation or ridicule or to disparage them in their professional capacity. Defamatory statements made on line will be classed as libel. So not only can the targeted individual (if identifi ed) of the comments seek redress, but also your school, as their employer, can seek redress in respect of statements that damage the business reputation of the school. Ultimately, a legal action for defamation can be brought against the former employee/parent. The comments could also be regarded as harassment and action can be taken against the individual for unlawful harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. As a fi rst step and with the benefi t of legal advice, a letter should be sent to the individual requiring them to post a retraction and an apology; and refer them to the school’s complaints policy as the appropriate forum for dealing with any issue over the quality of the teaching in a particular subject, that they may have. As regards the posting on this person’s own Facebook account, if your school has a social media and networking policy, applicable to its staff, which is referred to in their contract of employment; and this policy prohibits staff from making reference to the school or its staff, on any social networking sites, during their employment and afterwards. Then this policy can be referred to in the letter to the former employee seeking redress for breach of contract.