View from here - The mother of all web wrangles

16th April 2010 at 01:00
An Australian private school is suing a parent for internet defamation after she attacked its teaching staff online. Geoff Maslen logs on

In a case of man bites dog, an elite private school in Melbourne is suing a parent because it claims she defamed the institution, its staff and principal on a bogus website on the internet.

Disgruntled mother "Julia Barkly" created the website that purports to be an official school site in a revenge attack after her son was expelled. The site alleges the school is run by disreputable people and that the principal has acted dishonestly.

Ms Barkly, who uses a pseudonym to hide her own identity, is a lawyer whose son was expelled from the Anglican school, Southwood Boys Grammar.

The school claims it acted following 15 incidents of "bullying, harassment, willful misconduct and unacceptable behaviour".

Southwood charges fees of up to AUS$20,000 (#163;12,200) a year and says it only took legal action as a last resort after it became aware of the website and Ms Barkly refused to shut it down.

Australia's 1,000 private schools now enrol more than a third of the nation's school-age children and 40 per cent of those in the final secondary years.

Despite many schools charging high fees, the private sector receives almost #163;6 billion a year in funding from state and federal governments.

The cost to parents who send their child to a top private school for the entire 13 years of primary and secondary education can exceed #163;305,000 when uniforms, books, and annual trips to Paris, Berlin and Rome are included.

Now run as tightly controlled, highly competitive businesses, private schools are prepared to take parents to court for non-payment of fees. But the Southwood case is believed to be a first for a school to sue for internet defamation.

In its statement of claim, to be heard by the Federal Court in June, Southwood says Ms Barkly's website alleges that principal Jenny Collins "values only those students who have marketing potential for school promotions or a parent on the school board".

When her son was expelled, his mother took legal action against the school, which settled the case out of court and agreed to pay her AUS$10,000 (#163;6,000) but without admitting any liability.

After the school refused to re-enrol him, Ms Barkly established the false website. In her statement of defence, she says she wanted to provide people with information about the issue. She claims her son is not a bully and had not committed any offence that warranted expulsion.

Use of the web by angry parents or their offspring to defame schools and teachers is on the rise and is causing alarm among principals and the teachers' union.

Students at schools in Melbourne and Perth were caught and punished recently for using the Facebook website to attack their teachers.

And a high school in Perth suspended a dozen students after a Facebook page was created to attack a mathematics teacher. When the acting principal ordered the site to be shut down, a similar page attacking her was then created.

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