School seeks Instagram account identity over ‘derogatory’ comments, court told

Counsel said Facebook had told his side it would only give out information about account holders on foot of a court order because of data protection concerns

 

A High Court judge wants the Attorney General to be notified about an application to discover who is behind a closed down Instagram account which a school claims made derogatory and defamatory remarks about students and teachers.

Mr Justice Garrett Simons said he wanted the AG to be notified because of his concerns there may be freedom of speech and public interest issues involved. There may be “more to this case than meets the eye”, he said.

He made the comments when adjourning to later this month an application by the board of management of the Salesian Secondary College in Limerick against Facebook Ireland, owners of Instagram, for orders revealing the identity of the person or persons behind the account.

The judge imposed a limited reporting restriction, which allows the school and Facebook to be named.

David Geoghegan BL, for the school, said the application arose out of posts on an Instagram account which was operational for 10 days in October last year before it was closed down.

Various images and derogatory comments were posted on it about teachers and children which were inappropriate and some had a sexual context, he said.

Gardaí were notified due to the sexual nature of the comments, counsel said.

The school took steps to find out who was behind the account and ultimately gained access after obtaining the password from one of the students. However, it was still not possible to find out who was behind it.

Some of the messages being sent to other students were jocular but there were two messages of a sexual nature and there may have been an element of sarcasm in them, counsel said. The messages raised concerns of the principal and the account had since been closed, having been operational between October 14th and 24th, 2019.

Counsel said Facebook had told his side it would only give out information about account holders on foot of a court order because of data protection concerns.

Without an order, the school cannot find out who is behind it and whether it was a student or a teacher, he said. It would be a disciplinary matter if it was a student and an obvious employment issue if it was a teacher, he said. There was also the issue of alleged defamation.

Mr Justice Simons asked counsel if there was a freedom of speech issue. Counsel replied someone who was being disciplined because of the comments could make that argument.

Andrea Mulligan BL, for Facebook, said her client did not object to the order being made under a certain form of words used in similar cases where account holders’ IDs are divulged by the social media company.

The judge said he was concerned about the freedom of speech issue and he directed the AG be put on notice. He had a concern there was potentially a public interest issue.

After Mr Geoghegan applied for reporting restrictions because of what the school had said were the negative consequences of the matter and the highly inappropriate sexual references involving students and teachers who have done nothing wrong, the judge said he would impose limited reporting restrictions. While the school and Facebook may be named none of the individuals, because it involved minors, could be named, he directed.