Parents behaving badly online

It’s not just physically threatening conduct which can land parents in hot water. Their behaviour online, including social media channels, may also find them facing legal action.

“If a parent were to make disparaging comments of a particular school teacher or principal or anyone else at the school, that individual can bring a claim for defamation of character, whether it be on social media or published on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald,” Alex Kohn, a partner at Makinson d’Apice Lawyers, told The Educator.

“It is not to inhibit free speech and appropriate exchange of opinions. There’s a big difference between legitimate comment and making disparaging comments of a particular teacher or principal.”

In 2009, the principal of a Sydney primary school brought defamation proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court against a parent. The parent sent an email to 14 other parents, which said the principal was ‘an incompetent, dishonest and untrustworthy person’ to remain in her role at the school.

The Court found the email had defamed the principal and that the parent who sent the email had established no defences. It assessed damages in favour of the principal in the amount of $80,000.

Nathan Croot, a senior associate at Emil Ford Lawyers, suggested that, as with any dispute, resolving the issue before initiation of legal proceedings is best, where possible.

“Parents should be warned or confronted about their misconduct or inappropriate behaviour and, ideally, given the chance to issue an apology,” Croot said.

“One issue that schools need to work through … is to have good social media policies which should apply to anyone in the school community, so that there’s guidelines as to what people should and shouldn’t do.”

He added that schools also need to be cognisant of disputes that arise between parents on school message boards and parent portals.

“Schools need to work out how they mediate these issues as well, especially if a fight between the parents spills into the playground, as children stick up for their parents.”