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Website humiliation, privacy and defamation

Posted on Jan 17, 2014 by Andy Harris  | 0 Comments

by Andy Harris

One story in particular caught my eye this week.  In the US a Police Chief in Dallas has decided to publicly name and shame any of his officers who are disciplined. While that is certainly a major plus for those seeking greater transparency in public services, I doubt that other jurisdictions will be rushing  to follow suit. But it does raise some interesting issues on the perils of posting personal information on the website.

May the force be with you

Apparently the police chief in question has fired or disciplined 27 officers and employees in the last 12 months, and on each occasion the matter is then announced by him on Twitter and Facebook. Initially I had assumed, not unreasonably, that the officer’s identity would have been withheld, but apparently not. Identity, nature of the misconduct and the punishment imposed is all made available.

If the offence was more than just an internal disciplinary one, and led to criminal prosecution, then there are perhaps less issues involved, as criminal prosecutions are normally public proceedings and therefore a matter of public record. But if internal disciplinary matters are being routinely disclosed via a very public forum then that is a very different matter.

Defamation

Interestingly, in the same week as this story came the publication by the Ministry of Justice of guidance on the defence, available under the Defamation Act , to website operators accused of having defamatory material on their sites. Although that Act largely applies only to England and Wales, it will be useful guidance to website operators in Scotland as well, about the type of notice and take down procedures they should be considering.

Of course if the material posted on the website is a statement of fact, then (assuming this activity was taking place in the UK) it would not amount to defamation as you cannot defame if what you disseminate is true.

Breach of Privacy

It is in relation to privacy and data protection that this type of public shaming would be more difficult to justify in the UK. The fact that you work in the public sector and the organisation which employs you is subject to freedom of information legislation should not mean that you immediately have a lesser expectation of privacy.  While it may often be in the public interest to disclose certain information about internal disciplinary issues in a public sector organisation, the naming of the individuals concerned is much harder to justify.

In the UK the Data Protection Act will also apply to information regarding an individual’s disciplinary record at work.  Unless the individual had consented (unlikely I would have thought!) it would be difficult to see how public disclosure via a website could be permitted under that Act.  And it is worth bearing in mind that even personal information obtained from a public source can be covered by the Act.

Be prepared

Of course I doubt anyone reading this blog will be planning to post information about their colleagues’ disciplinary records.  However whatever information you post on your website – and particularly where you allow others to post comments on your site – you need to have clear procedures in place to deal with complaints. Unless of course you happen to be a Police Chief in Dallas...

Andy Harris

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