An extraordinary ruling by a Northern Ireland judge will lead to a chilling effect on people using the internet to expose convicted paedophiles and give hope to sex offenders that they can make money from people and organisations attacking them for their crimes.
The Belfast case has been picked up by the excellent Inforrm blog which gives a detailed legal analysis of what happened from Lorna Skinner ,a barrister at Matrix Chambers.
The facts appear to be these. Joseph McCloskey set up a Facebook profile page called ” Keep Our Kids Safe from Predators 2 ” which posted information about a convicted sex offender called CG. A similar page was set up by RS the father of one of CG’s victims.
CG’s lawyers complained about the postings on both sites.
Inforrm says: ” Broadly speaking, each consisted of the publication of a photograph of CG together with information identifying him as a sex offender. This was followed by further posts and/or comments from viewers of the material consisting of verbal abuse, threats, and information as to identification and location.”
None of the information published by McCloskey was private, It was all in the public domain at the time of CG’s conviction. CG’s solicitors complained to Mr McCloskey who immediately removed all postings relating to CG. The postings on RS’s page were removed by Facebook, in each case some time after receipt of a complaint. The posts are said to contain threats of violence against the paedophile which judge took particular exception.
But the lawyers weren’t satisfied and went to court claiming the sex offender had been harassed on Facebook and his human rights breached by the publication on Facebook.
As Inforrm reports his lawyers said” the material posted amounted to a misuse of private information, was in breach of Articles 2, 3 and 8 of the ECHR, amounted to harassment of him contrary to the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 and that each of them were guilty of actionable negligence. For good measure he also asserted that Facebook was in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.”
What is extraordinary is the ruling from Mr Justice Stephens, the judge. Even though the site had been taken down the judge approved an injunction against to protect the privacy of other sex offenders and paedophiles who had been named by contributors to the page.
As Inforrm reports ( my emphasis): “The Judge found that Mr McCloskey’s purpose in setting up the profile/page, which on his evidence had 25,000 friends, was to destroy the family life of sex offenders, to expose them to total humiliation and vilification, to drive them from their homes and expose them to the risk of serious harm.”
Inforrm adds: “As a result, CG was awarded damages totalling £20,000. An anti-harassment injunction was made against Mr McCloskey and a mandatory injunction was made against Facebook requiring it to terminate the entirety of the “Keeping our Kids Safe from Predators 2” profile/page including all material referring to other sex offenders as it “is doing damage to other individuals and is clearly unlawful”.
The full judgement is here for those who want to read it.
Quite rightly the wide terms of such a ban – particularly in relation to the Data Protection Act – is questioned by the Matrix barrister. She points out : “The obvious fallacy of this approach is that sensitive personal data covers areas where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, for example: “David Cameron is the Conservative Prime Minister, who comes from a traditional English background”. Similarly, it is difficult to see how, absent the application of a DPA-style [data protection act] analysis, CG could sensibly have argued that his image, or the fact of his conviction for sex offences was, or had become, private information.”
I regard this ruling as excessive and dangerous. While the threats of violence against the paedophile seem to have contributed to the judge’s findings, a complete ban on the site is out of proportion. Also the judgement reveals that Mr McCloskey’s own mother was the subject of repeated child sexual abuse, which led him to set up the site. The site was comprehensive in tracing all N Ireland paedophiles.
Suppose for example, to take a current case, Tony McSweeney, just convicted for indecent assault, is sent to prison and subsequently let out on licence. Should the Roman Catholic Church have the right to remove everything from websites about him which was revealed at the time of his conviction? And should he get damages if people reveal this information, I think not.