Facebook must pay £3,000 damages to a loyalist flag protester for online comments about his children's religion, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled on Tuesday.
Mr Justice Colton made the award after finding the social media giant liable for misuse of private information.
The man at the centre of the case, referred to only as J20, sued Facebook over a series of offensive comments posted on its pages. He came under focus for 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. She added: “He must be full of diazepam cause he is the biggest coward I have had the misfortune to meet. Love the page by the way.”
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 his legal action against Facebook he sued for harassment and misuse of private information. Dismissing the harassment claim, Mr Justice Colton said the comments were offensive and distasteful, but did not “cross the boundary between what is unattractive and unreasonable as opposed to what is oppressive and unacceptable”.
According to the judge, J20 had understated his involvement in the flag protests. But he held that the man did have a right to privacy over the religion of his children.
“Any fair or objective reading of the references to the children could not possibly be justified, even in the context of his participation in loyalist protests,” Mr Justice Colton said. “The reference to these children – who can be identified by reason of the identification of the mother of the plaintiff’s ex-partner – in my view does constitute a misuse of private information.”
Ruling that Facebook was liable, he confirmed: “In all the circumstances I consider an appropriate award is one of £3,000 damages.”