A Sydney primary school principal has been awarded more than $80,000 in compensation after a disgruntled parent sent a defamatory email to 14 parents he identified from a list of parents of class students.
The Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled that Dr Rajaratnam Premachandran had no defence to sending the email in April 2008, which defamed Beecroft Primary School Principal Jennie Ryan, after his daughters performed poorly in a selective school’s test.
The court found that Dr Premachandran’s email conveyed imputations including that Ms Ryan was incompetent, dishonest, untrustworthy and not fit to hold office as Principal. The email called for Ms Ryan’s resignation and invited the 14 parents who received the email to support Dr Premachandran’s call for Ms Ryan’s resignation.
Dr Premachandran, who represented himself during the 4-day trial, sought to rely on defences that the imputatutions about Ms Ryan were true, that his email constituted honest opinion or was protected by qualified privilege at common law.
The judge found that there was simply no evidence capable of establishing the substantial truth of any of the imputations conveyed about Ms Ryan in the email. His Honour also determined that Dr Premachandran’s motive in sending the email was to force Ms Ryan to resign by discrediting and denigrating her before the 14 parents, and stemmed from his perception that Ms Ryan was responsible for what he claimed was the inadequate teaching of his daughter.
The judge rejected the qualified privilege defence. At common law, a defamatory statement receives qualified protection when it is made in discharge of a duty or the furtherance or protection of an interest of the statement maker or some person with whom the publisher has a direct, business or social connection, and the recipient of the statement has a corresponding duty to receive or interest in receiving it.
The judge carefully scrutinised all the circumstances of the case in order to determine whether Dr Premachandran had a duty to publish or an interest in publishing the email to the 14 recipients, and whether they had an interest in receiving it.
The judge found that the email contained Dr Premachandran’s private dealings with, and grievances against, Ms Ryan. Further, there was no evidence of any relationship between Dr Premachandran and the recipients of the email. The 14 parents were not people who had any authority over or responsibility for Ms Ryan’s performance as principal. They were simply identified from the list of parents of students who had been in Dr Premachandran eldest child’s class the previous year. There was no evidence that the incidents that Dr Premachandran complained of in his email involved the children of the parents. Consequently, the recipients were not people to whom a complaint about Ms Ryan’s conduct might properly be directed.
In those circumstances, it could not be said that Dr Premachandran was under a social or moral duty to publish his email to the parents or had had an interest in doing so, or that they had a relevant interest in knowing of defamatory statements relating to his personal concerns in support of his call for Ms Ryan’s resignation.
No defence of honest opinion or fair comment was made out because the judge found that the ordinary reasonable reader would regard the words of the email as statements of facts as distinct from comment or an expression of opinion.
Considering Dr Premachandran was well educated with no difficulty with the English language, His Honour considered that he well knew the ordinary meaning conveyed by the terms of the email and their likely impact.
Furthermore, Dr Premachandran’s email was found to be not only false but also to have been sent in the knowledge of its falsity. His Honour found that knowledge that the contents of the email were false was conclusive that the email was actuated by an improper motive or malice, compounding the award of damages to Ms Ryan.
This case, whilst interesting, must be considered in the context of its own peculiar set of facts and circumstances. It should not be seen as a general statement by the Courts of the application of the law of defamation in these types of situations.
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