Social media: Protecting schools and staff from online abuse

The rise in popularity of social media means messages and opinions can be shared and spread at an unprecedented rate. Whilst this is often convenient, allowing us to keep up to date with global events in real time, it also brings with it issues previously unseen: the setting up of fake profiles aimed at harming individuals and businesses and the spread of malicious rumours at the touch of a button. Schools are not immune to these issues which can cause distress and harm to targeted staff members. What should schools do?

Schools must be prepared to deal with matters quickly and prevent escalation as far as possible. Irate parents, third parties and students all pose a potential threat. Being proactive is a key element in securing a swift resolution:

Monitor social media platforms

It’s an obvious point, but issues cannot be tackled until they are discovered in the first place! Having a member of staff designated to keep an eye on what is being said about the school online is the only way to ensure that malicious actions are spotted early. Monitoring is made easier using online “alert” features that can be set up so that updates are delivered to an email inbox.

Step up monitoring and don’t react if an issue is discovered

A sensible approach (unless the issue is more serious, e.g., intellectual property infringement such as unauthorised use of the school’s logo – see below), is to step up monitoring and see how the situation develops. Often, a response from the school will simply add fuel to the fire, and matters may peter out if a reaction is not forthcoming.

Take action if situation develops

Evidently, if matters continue for a long period of time, some action will need to be taken in order to try and prevent further harm. Defamation is a difficult and expensive legal remedy to obtain and is often unavailable because of the need to prove “serious harm.” Litigation can also turn a difficult situation toxic, so a softer approach in dealing with social media platforms is preferable. Online platforms have to provide complaints procedures but as many platforms are US-based companies, any complaints will be viewed in light of American freedom of speech principles, which tend to be wider than those in the UK. When writing a complaint, therefore, it is a good idea to focus on the impact of the action(s) being complained of e.g. the distress caused to staff due to the spread of rumours.

What if there is an infringement of intellectual property rights from the off? In this case, there may well be a stronger case for legal action or a stronger basis for a complaint to the platform service provider. Factors to consider will be whether a name or logo being used is a registered trade mark owned by the school and whether the other party’s use of it is an infringement of the trade mark. We can assist with this.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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