Charities Regulator ordered to explain why it blocked woman on Twitter

Róisín McGarr raised concerns over authority’s decision to remove pro-repeal mural

The mural in Dublin’s Temple Bar calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The mural in Dublin’s Temple Bar calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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The Charities Regulator has been ordered to explain to a woman why it blocked her Twitter account ahead of the abortion referendum after she sought reasons for its decision.

Róisín McGarr appealed to the Information Commissioner after the regulator refused to provide her with a statement of reasons, as provided for in law, for blocking her account sometime between May 14th and 18th this year.

Section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act provides that a person who is affected by an act of an FOI body, and has a “material interest” in a matter affected by the act or to which it relates, is entitled to a statement of reasons for that act.

Ms McGarr had raised concerns on Twitter about the Charities Regulatory Authority’s decision to order the removal of a pro-repeal mural by the artist Maser painted on the wall of the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar.

She also tweeted the regulator about 20 anti-abortion groups that she alleged were claiming to be charities in Facebook pages, in breach of the Charities Act.

After the regulator blocked her, Ms McGarr sought a statement of reasons, which it refused to provide on the grounds that the request did not relate to an act that affected her and in respect of which she had a material interest. An internal review affirmed the original decision by the regulator.

The regulator provided the Information Commissioner with a letter of July 19th sent to Ms McGarr outside the FOI process, in which it said it did not appear that she had suffered any disadvantage as a result of being blocked.

It said she could access the Charities Regulator’s public Twitter feed without logging into a Twitter account, or via a different account. It was also open to her to access the Charities Regulator via other social media channels, such as LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook, and via email.

Binding decision

In a binding decision issued on Tuesday, Information Commissioner senior investigator Stephen Rafferty said he did not accept the Charities Regulator’s arguments that Ms McGarr was not personally affected by the act of blocking her Twitter account and that she had not suffered any disadvantage.

“The act of blocking the specific account, of which the applicant is the registered user, had the effect of restricting the applicant’s ability to use the service to interact with the CRA, unlike all other Twitter users whose accounts have not been blocked. In my view, this is an act that can reasonably be described as the exercise of a power which resulted in the withholding of a benefit to the applicant,” Mr Rafferty wrote.

He annulled the decision of the regulator to refuse to provide Ms McGarr with a statement of reasons for its decision to block her Twitter account. He directed it to issue a statement of reasons based on the contents of its letter to Ms McGarr of July 19th, with the addition of information it had provided to the commissioner’s office about a tweet from Ms McGarr on May 2nd.

Ms McGarr said she felt the regulator had engaged in “selective, censorious” behaviour during the referendum campaign.

“The CRA’s blocking was an unjustifiable attempt to restrict the right of a citizen to legitimately communicate with and about a public body and to easily access public information. The refusal of the CRA to explain their censorious action then added insult to injury,” Ms McGarr said.

The Charities Regulator’s mission is “to regulate the charity sector in the public interest so as to ensure compliance with the law and support best practice in the governance, management and administration of charities”.

It said in a statement it had received the Information Commissioner’s decision on Wednesday and was reviewing it.

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