Independent Schools: how to protect privacy in the social media age

A growing number of individuals are taking legal action to stop gossip about their private lives and their children at school in the age of social media, writes Emma Banister Dean

Negative comments on social media require careful management. High profile individuals who send their children to independent schools are rightly protective of their privacy and reputation. The increasing use of social media to leverage advantage in disputes between parents, or to spread gossip about the private lives of high profile individuals, means that parents require independent schools to intervene to protect them and their children.

Schools frequently face the online fallout from disputes between parents, pupils or with the school itself. Fee paying parents –  used to having their instructions carried out – can react angrily to allegations against their child or a failure to satisfy school entry requirements. In my experience, disgruntled parents can react in unpredictable ways, from threatening to live stream self harm in protest against the school’s decision not to admit their child, to repeatedly defaming another child and their parents within WhatsApp groups for the school’s parent community.

Posting allegations in the digital domain significantly inflames disputes. More importantly, it can cause damage to students. When advising Heads or Bursars on these issues, the first step is to recommend messaging parents, reminding them that online defamatory content can result in their being subject to more formal action and would be a breach of school policies and procedures.

For a minority of parents however, the warnings are unheeded. Without the right preparation the school may not have the basis for controlling further postings.

The relevant claim is often in defamation, with an application for an interim injunction halting further postings until the final hearing. The problem is if the defamatory statements are about the parents or students and not the school, the school itself has not been defamed and cannot pursue a claim.

Schools can help to control negative comments by asking parents and students to sign up to a charter governing conduct on social media. These documents form part of the contract between members of the school community and, if breached, allow the school to control the outcome rather than relying on the parents to take formal steps.

When asking schools to address negative comments or postings the emphasis should be on diffusing the tension. Schools should redirect the complainant to contact them via email or to follow the complaints procedure, adding a link to the relevant material.

There are a growing number of individuals taking legal action to stop gossip about their private lives and those of their children. In some cases rumours of drug-fuelled weekend parties and the latest salvos in messy divorces are true – but in many instances they are either highly exaggerated or entirely false.

The potential for damage to children from the circulation of these stories on social media and via the press is significant and well-recognised by the courts, who have granted at least one super injunction on that basis.

Tools are available to parents, enabling protection of their reputations and those of their children. Schools are also aware of their role in maintaining the equilibrium of their community.

Emma Banister Dean is a partner in the dispute resolution team of Royds Withy King, the law firm.

Image credit: Brandon Nickerson/Pexels



 

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