Teacher wins first battle in landmark Facebook libel case

The teacher works at De La Salle school in west Belfast
The teacher works at De La Salle school in west Belfast

A teacher has won a preliminary stage in her landmark libel action against Facebook over postings alleging a failure to safeguard pupils at a west Belfast secondary school.

A High Court judge backed her case that comments on a social media page about De La Salle College contained more serious alleged defamatory content.

Mr Justice Burgess said: “There is no qualification, no equivocation as regards the role ascribed to her by the writers of the postings.”

Proceedings centre on claims that a priest invited into the Catholic boys’ school questioned three students about their sex lives during confession.

Allegations that a group of pupils were then taken to see the same priest in the Irish Republic after he was banned from the school also feature.

The teacher who has brought the case is not being named for legal reasons.

She is seeking damages against Facebook and an anonymous group behind the page, using the pseudonym Concerned Parents of De La Salle, for alleged misuse of private information.

It is understood to be the first libel claim of its kind brought against the social media giant in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year an independent review commissioned by the school’s board of governors examined its child protection measures.

The report looked into allegations by three pupils that the priest made inappropriate comments to them during a visit in May 2013.

It involved claims of being asked about masturbating and viewing pornography.

The complaints were referred to the PSNI, but no further police action was taken as none of the boys’ parents wanted to make a complaint, according to the published review.

It found that, in all cases, the pupils’ allegations had been reported to the relevant designated teacher.

The teacher taking the legal action was never subject to police investigation and categorically denies any claims against her.

A preliminary hearing in the case involved arguments on the meaning behind comments posted on the page.

Lawyers representing the teacher and Facebook advanced conflicting assessments on the level and seriousness of the alleged defamatory content.

No defence has been entered at this stage on behalf of the second, unidentified defendant.

Counsel for the teacher contended that the allegations directed at his client were portrayed as facts.

He insisted she was being accused of having exposed pupils to the priest’s alleged misconduct.

Facebook’s legal representatives countered by suggesting a range of meanings, including that there had merely been grounds to investigate her involvement.

Rejecting that assessment, Mr Justice Burgess held there was no reference in the parents’ postings to conduct which was only alleged or required investigation to establish accuracy or authenticity.

“Instead, at all times it is stated in factual terms as to her involvement in events which they stated had taken place,” he said.

“Therefore, no matter how generous my approach to the range of legitimate meanings of the postings, I cannot support the submission of the defendants as to the meaning they attribute to the postings as they relate to the plaintiff.”

His verdict could now lead to the action proceeding to trial, potentially in front of a jury, at a later stage.