Loyalist flag protester’s damages slashed in Court of Appeal

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Damages awarded to a loyalist flag protester for being branded a “tout” on Facebook are to be cut to just £500, the Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday.

Senior judges also overturned a separate finding that comments posted about his grown-up children’s religion amounted to a further misuse of private information.

Their verdict was reached in a potentially landmark action centred on social media and privacy.

Facebook mounted an appeal after it was originally ordered to pay £3,000 to the man at the centre of the case, referred to only as J20.

He sued the company over a series of offensive postings linked to his involvement in demonstrations following a decision in December 2012 to limit the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall.

The court heard he has a conviction for disorderly behaviour over an incident linked to tensions at the time.

In September 2013 one page included a picture of the man standing in front of the flag, naming him and stating: Meet Sectarian Parade Organiser.

Among comments posted was one claiming: “Another loyalist bigot exposed... (he) organises more loyalist parades and protests than you could shake your fleg (sic) at, he is as bitter as the day is long.”

Another poster alleged: “My daughter had three children to this scum woman-beating snake who can’t string two words together, he can only mumble.”

The woman further claimed the plaintiff deleted his children from his Facebook page because they had Catholic names.

A third contributor to the page alleged that J20 doesn’t bother with his children, offering the reason “probably because they are Fenians.”

A separate Facebook page featured a photo of J20 in outdoor gear holding up a fish towards the camera.

Superimposed on the picture were the words: “That’s a tout so it is. Said the fish.”

Other photographs prompted further captions, including a reference to the plaintiff’s sexuality.

Another posted: “They said I could be anything so I became a lonely jobless flegger. I’m a woman beater and take the odd Diazepam so I do.”

His photo appeared again on a third web page, along with a description of him as a “parade organiser, knuckle dragger bigot”.

In December last year the High Court awarded J20 damages for Facebook’s misuse of private information.

The social media giant challenged findings that the references to his children and his alleged role as a tout were breaches of privacy.

Ruling on the appeal, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan noted that J20 has not seen his children for nearly two decades.

The oldest is now 31 while the youngest is at least 16, the court heard.

No evidence was produced to show that their religion should be kept private, Sir Declan found.

He added: “There is no question of reputational damage to the children.

“If there is reputational damage to (J20) it is because of his conduct towards children, but there was no pleading or case made that this was private information.”

Turning the tout claims, the judge upheld the High Court’s verdict that it inferred a confidential relationship between the alleged informer and those being assisted.

“A person who had provided confidential information to a relevant agency would as a matter of course reasonably expect that the fact of this communication of the material would be private,” Sir Declan said.

But he held that Facebook is only liable for the period between it being alerted to the posting and taking it down - just under two weeks in 2013.

The Lord Chief Justice confirmed: “We allow the appeal in relation to the publication of the religion of the respondent’s three children and reduce the award of damages to £500.”