I have written this blog in response to Old Andrew’s recent goading of me from his Twitter account. He has long blocked me and I him. I have family members well versed in the laws of libel, defamation and cyber-crime who when they are deeply concerned about this blogger’s unprovoked attacks on my character and good name alert me to these. Last week Mr Smith sent out messages that he was celebrating that after one year I had still taken no action against him. Today he apparently reposted his original blog in which he falsely alleged that I had deliberately bullied a NQT off Twitter. Here is what has happened legally to date. I apologise for the length but I need to be accurate and above all truthful. Thank you for reading.
Just over a year ago as some of my followers will remember I had the temerity to challenge what I perceived to be a blog denigrating openly and publicly the staff, young people and families in a school in a part of London I know well. My own PGCE trainees who were always much more social media savvy than me had told me many times how they avoided the public use of Social Media on the basis that “once it’s out there…”
The blog was based around the fact that a NQT had been refused permission to visit another London School by her own HT and DHT. She had however visited the school, was highly impressed by what she saw and learnt and then blogged about it. Her blog was then ReTweeted by the SLT of the school she had visited in order to showcase their school. I had and still have no problem with any of that. Except that the NQT’s blog made some serious and denigrating comments about the students and staff at her own school and I personally would have thought twice about RTing these. Having worked in London Schools for over 2 decades I knew how easily just a few of these blogger’s comments would identify her school if anyone were to read her blog. Which is presumably why she had written it in the first place. For those who need more background do click on this link
I had been thinking about my own trainees and their knowledge of social media and just wanted to alert the NQT to the fact that she might not be making things easy for herself with her present and future employers. Actually it turned out she was not a NQT at all but a Teaching Assistant looking to train as a teacher in the future through Schools Direct. This in my opinion made her even more vulnerable. Many of those who saw my comments and a number of experienced HTs and members of disciplinary panels said that I had given her excellent advice.
So what happened next?
The personal backlash from a number of big hitters and many others was horrific. I have a full record of these. I was accused of doxxing, of showing an unhealthy interest in this woman’s writing and of bullying her off Twitter. Her initial blog had prompted me to read several others she had written. I saw nothing wrong and peculiar about this. A blogger writes to be read. I was advised to go the police and to take legal action.
A particularly prominent blogger repeatedly made a number of false accusations against me on his well-known blog. As did a number of his followers and supporters. As I had never had any communication with any of these people bar the blogger himself I was more than a little surprised that they felt they could be such good judges of my character.
You may want to look at some of these comments in the comments section of the blog.
I asked him, courteously, to withdraw the false accusations or produce the evidence several times. He refused in no uncertain terms:
You will see that my comments were courteous throughout and simply asked for the false accusations to be removed. That is all I wanted. Quietly and without fanfare. These requests were met with increasingly belligerent responses from the blogger.
“I have listed in this blogpost the bullying behaviour that drove Teacher Newbie off Twitter and to hide her blog. If you refuse to see anything wrong in what you’ve done, then that is your problem. The fact remains that you did do it.”
After I published I tried hard to follow my own advice and remain calm and dignified in the face of the most extraordinary on-line abuse from people I had never even heard of. Some of them senior staff in schools in both the State and Independent sectors. They did not challenge me in a professional manner which I could have dealt with. This was pure, unadulterated, bitter abuse.
I spoke with friends and family within the legal profession and/or with intricate knowledge of on-line abuse and cyber crime. But I wanted to be totally above board and needed impartial advice and was perfectly willing to pay for this.
I employed a firm of highly experienced litigation lawyers to process my claim that someone whom I knew as @oldandrewuk – Mr. Andrew Smith – had repeatedly defamed my reputation on his blog, on Twitter, which in his case is linked to his FB account, and possibly on the Echo Chamber, another educational blog that he edited or co-edited. He used at least one account other than his own on Twitter to call me a bully. And then made light of his mistake.
My solicitor, having analysed all my tweets and comments and believing that I had a very strong case against this man then sent a letter to him. This person had several times over the last few weeks, and with a degree of pride, issued tweets declaring that he had not yet received a solicitor’s letter.
When Mr. Smith received the letter – there was no doxxing by my lawyers, it was easy to find contact details on his blog – he immediately took to Twitter to ask for pro bono legal help. He was given advice by many – some saying such things as – and do forgive me “tell them (i.e. me and my lawyers) to fuck off!” However Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas and Spiked fame offered to talk to him by email. That of course was her prerogative. But it indicated that I might be up against a different morality from mine and most of the people I know.
My solicitor’s letter was detailed, forensic and unequivocal. It asked Mr Smith to remove all references to me across all his SM accounts, take down his blog pages and apologise. And pointed out exactly which particular laws he had broken. Here are the key points that he communicated to Mr. Smith. At no point did I or my solicitor mentioned suing him.
- Labelling and accusing someone publicly of being a bully could cause them to suffer serious damage to their reputation.
- You appear to have attempted to justify the comments you have made publicly about our client by stating that you were describing the behaviour of someone which you considered to be bullying. It is clear from your comments that you were not just accusing our client of engaging in bullying behaviour but you also accused our client of being a bully.
- Our client did not state nor imply in her tweets that she was going to “out” ‘Teaching Newbie’ to her employers. Our client was doing nothing more than trying to warn someone who appeared to be reasonably new to the profession and possibly new to blogging of the dangers of posting blogs which contain content that would allow an employer or future employer to identify her.
- Whilst people are allowed to have opinions, the law is there to protect a person’s reputation. In accordance with Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013, a statement will be defamatory if its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to a person’s reputation. Our client is a well-known education advisor and teacher trainer with over 35 years in the profession. Clearly, an accusation of bully and/or bullying behaviour is likely to cause serious harm to her reputation within the industry. The comments that have been made have been made on a number of public forums which can be viewed by an unquantifiable number of people.
- Whilst you have attempted to justify the publications you have made, we do not consider that you would have any defence under the Defamation Act 2013; this is not a true statement, it is not a fact which an honest person could have held the opinion of, nor is this a matter of public interest.
- As stated above, our client would like this matter to be resolved. We therefore request that you remove your comments in relation to our client from your blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts and provide our client with an apology.
I was clear from the outset that I did not want this to go to court. I simply wanted Mr Smith to remove the comments from his blog, in his Tweets and on FB in which he falsely accused me of bullying and ideally apologise for the stress this had caused me. Actually I did not care about the apology. I wanted the lies removed.
My solicitor then received a letter from Mr. Smith’s pro-bono solicitor. It made all the same false accusations that Old Andrew had made on his blog. It was threatening and basically said “see you in court.” It failed to address any of the points in the letter sent by my solicitor but simply reiterated the false claims made by Mr Smith in his blog.
I know that I can now share publicly the counter arguments to my claim. These were that:
- There was a clear intention on my behalf for there to be an implied threat. This was supported by the fact that the individual in question had not only stopped blogging comments of the nature I had complained of, but had in fact removed her account from twitter entirely. These were the actions of someone who felt sufficiently threatened by my actions.
- I also appeared to be trying to silence my critics through unjustified threats of legal proceedings. Furthermore, it was noted that I had on four occasions described other people’s behaviour as bullying on social media.
- Mr Smith’s solicitor also advised him that he had the defence of qualified privilege. It is imperative that anyone in the teaching profession should be entitled to air their views of the profession without fear or threat that their career will be in question. It is often the case that new people to a profession bring new and modern ways of thinking. The fact that I had been in this profession for 30 years does not mean that mine was the only view which can be correct, despite my actions indicating that this was my view. It was clear to Mr Smith that my actions in trying to force him to retract this statement further reinforced the argument that I was behaving in a bullying fashion.
- They concluded that in the circumstances Mr Smith had no intentions of offering any apology or retraction. Should I wish to ask a jury to determine whether this was a defamatory comment, with all the publicity which comes with the same, then I should need to issue proceedings forthwith.
- And the final line was that my solicitors would have no doubt forewarned me of the cost and reputational issues that bringing an unfounded claim of this nature would result in.
The flaws in the above are:
- The teacher whom Mr Smith accused me of bullying off Twitter reappeared on Twitter within a few days of the so called bullying incident around May 10th under a new name. She has been blogging since then under the new name it seems. I would not know. She has also admitted apparently that she was not traumatised and bullied off as Mr. Smith claims but simply needed “to regroup.”
- Of these 3 occasions over at least 5 years one had been a general question about bullying on Twitter which for me is an issue, 2 others had been challenging Mr Smith and the other had been to do with ginger hair, hair products and make up whilst laughing with women friends.
- Qualified Privilege. This is usually reserved for journalists and is about threats to the national interest or similar.
- Why would I want to risk my reputation and credibility because one blogger and a few Tweeters were trying to defame me?
- Why would I want to risk my home, savings, lovely gentle lifestyle and peace of mind because one blogger and a few Tweeters were trying to defame me?
Implications of a court case against Mr Smith
The fact that some key players from Spiked were involved may mean little. It may mean that the blogger/tweeter had big finance behind him from Spiked or Institute of Ideas and wanted to fight this case with all their resources to prove a point. I really didn’t know. But given their very public track record they would undoubtedly be fighting this on the Freedom of Speech issue. For me it was not about FoS. It was about libellous defamation pure and simple.
I had been clear from the outset that I did not want this to go to court. I had no intention of throwing more money at it and frankly I value my husband, family and friends too much to let this take over my life which I and my family run on the basis of dignity and privacy but also standing up for our values and principles.
Support and offers of financial assistance.
The amount of support I had from fellow tweeters was enormous both on the main thread and by DM. A number of people suggested crowd funding. Others, including some highly respected “big names” offered me generous sums of money. The finance was not the issue except as I and anyone with a modicum of common sense knows I was going to pay thousands out of my own purse and others’ purses if I went ahead. Mr Smith had pro bono legal advice and seemed to be spoiling for a fight free of charge to him. We are not particularly wealthy but how could I accept donations from others when this would simply line the pockets of lawyers and I have lots of jokes on Twitter about how much we travel and how many scarves I buy on each trip? So donate the money to MSF, Amnesty, The Howard League or other charities was my response to many of those kind and brave people. I will forever be in their debt for the moral support they gave me.
I don’t regret any of this – even the money that I personally paid to get my solicitors to act – but I am disappointed that the same blogger seems to continue to make people want to go underground. I have evidence of this. In the last few days he has dragged all this up as a cause for “celebrations” in the belief that the Statute of Limitations is over.
I have thought long and hard about whether I should publish and there will be many, even friends, who will say just let it go. There may even be a “pile- in” and attempts to smear my character. I will have to deal with this but I have weighed it up.
I never wanted a fight. What was the point? Mr Smith may be celebrating. So am I. I am celebrating a moral victory. That is all I ever wanted. But I think it is about time to use my own rights under Freedom of Speech and Qualified Privilege maybe. If only one person gains any strength from this I will be happy.
If blogs such as that of Mr Smith are acceptable under the auspices of FoS and QP then that is essentially a charter to allow anyone to say or write anything across social media. For those of us in education this is threatening and indeed chilling in the times we are living in. How on earth do we ever explain this to young people who are terrified of on-line abuse and bullying? No wonder people just stop tweeting and are terrified of sharing their stories.
And if we all stay silent because we want to be dignified and mature, who will speak up when “they” come for us?