A teacher defamed by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) has been awarded $350,000 in damages.
The defamed teacher (Ms K) is accomplished. Justice McCallum, in the Supreme Court of NSW, remarked that 'teaching is everything to [her]'. Ms K was awarded a Bachelor of Education from the University of Sydney, winning the University Medal. She holds a senior position at a prestigious school in NSW.
In an unfortunate series of events, Ms K was 'grossly defamed' by an article which 'greatly damaged Ms K's impeccable reputation and caused her immense hurt'. Justice McCallum went on to say that 'she is entitled... to have the court declare to all the world the falsity of that which has been imputed to her by the newspaper'.
A carelessly written article
Ms K taught at a NSW non-government boys school. A teacher, who was not Ms K, was subject to allegations of inappropriate conduct. An internal investigation was undertaken by the school, and the matter was reported to Police. That teacher was asked to resign, and she did.
Subsequently, reporters at the SMH heard rumours of inappropriate conduct. The story was passed through several journalists. One of the journalists investigated the story and formed the (ultimately wrong) view that the teacher subject to allegations might be Ms K, according to the judgment. This was based on 'comments on Rate My Teacher and information on her Facebook site, which showed that she had numerous students and ex-students as friends'.
School Governance has previously written about defamation and other issues associated with the Rate My Teacher website.
The journalist made further enquiries, at one point calling the school and asking to speak with Ms K, but hung up before she could speak to her. The journalist formed a view that the teacher subject to allegations of impropriety was not Ms K, as Ms K was still teaching at the school.
An article was subsequently published that reported on the allegations of misconduct, but did not name the teacher accused. However, the article used descriptors such as 'female', 'in her late twenties', and 'taught English and drama'. These descriptors, in fact, described a person who could only be Ms K, but did not describe the teacher that was the subject of the allegations and who had resigned.
Although Ms K was not named in the article, she was nevertheless identified by it. She was therefore defamed by the imputations contained in the article. These imputations implied she had committed serious contraventions of child protection laws, that she was a sexual predator, and that she had committed serious criminal offences.
The article was widely published, appearing in print, online on the iPad app, and on Twitter. It was also featured as an 'Editor's Pick' on the online version.
The school's conduct
It is worth noting, in passing, that the judgment did not reflect on the school in question. Justice McCallum remarked that an internal investigation took place, one matter was referred to police, and a report was made to the NSW Ombudsman. There was no suggestion of impropriety on the school's part.
In response to the enquiries from the journalist, the principal gave general answers, but declined to talk about the identity of the teacher that was subject to allegations. The school was not a party to the court proceedings.
Although the case raises novel legal points, a few other interesting aspects should be considered.
First, social media was once again relevant in this case. It was confirmed that the publication of a link to the article on Twitter could be 'publication' for the purposes of defamation law.
Second, attempts by the newspaper to publish a correction as part of its compensatory efforts to Ms K were looked upon dimly by the Judge. Her Honour noted that although an 'apology' was published, it was buried at the bottom of the homepage, was titled 'apology', and was not prominent. Justice McCallum remarked that the apology did not reach the same audience as the article. Whereas the apology was only published on the online homepage, the original article was published and promoted in print, online, on the iPad app, and on Twitter. It was suggested that an effective apology should have been more prominent.
Third, the amount ultimately awarded ($350,000) was significantly higher than the publisher's offered settlement ($50,000). Clearly, the article had quite a negative effect on Ms K. In determining the final amount, Justice McCallum took into account the aggravating circumstances of the publication of the article. Justice McCallum remarked that 'probably the most significant aggravating feature of the circumstances of the publication is the fact that the publisher took no steps to prevent the reader from falling into the same error the journalist herself had fallen into' (that is, that it did not prevent Ms K being wrongly identified, despite the journalist making that very same mistake).
A teacher's vindication
The award of damages is designed to remedy the damage to Ms K's reputation. In this case, the awarded amount of $350,000 was close to the maximum ordinarily allowable under defamation law ($366,000). The damages account for hurt and personal distress caused to Ms K, the wide publication of the article, and other aggravating circumstances.
Ms K continues to teach at the school.