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Facebook slagging sees man in court

Last updated 22:57 13/06/2014

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A man who posted derogatory comments on his Facebook page about his former partner has been convicted of breaching a protection order by engaging in psychological abuse.

Nicholas Scullin, 47, was in a relationship with the woman for about 18 months before it ended last July.

She obtained a protection order against him and later "defriended" him on Facebook.

On September 7, Scullin posted comments calling her a bitch and a "skant" [sic], and a mutual friend showed them to the woman.

She complained to police, who charged Scullin. He was found guilty last month.

Scullin admitted posting the comments and said it was in the context of mutual recriminations that he and his brother had between themselves about former wives or partners.

He believed the comments would be only for his family members, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of engaging in behaviour that amounted to psychological abuse on a protected person.

In a reserved decision, Judge Geoff Rea said there was no doubt the postings were "psychologically abusive", and "the only inference that can be drawn, in my view, is that he intended the postings to be brought to the complainant's attention".

The judge referred to a High Court decision last year in which Justice Fogarty ruled that people who use Facebook "are very aware that the contents of Facebook are often communicated to persons beyond the ‘friends' who use Facebook".

In Napier District Court on May 22, the judge sentenced Scullin to 100 hours' community work.

He said it was clear the comments were "designed to upset".

Family and harassment law expert Madeleine Flannagan said it was "good to see the same reasoning and approach in restraining order law in respect of cyber acts being applied to protection order law".

A comment posted on Facebook was completely different to a situation in which the same comment might be spoken among a group of friends in a bar, she said. "At the bar, there are far fewer people ‘present' and those overhearing are far more likely to be trusted or close friends or complete strangers, therefore the chances of comments said in that context getting back to the ex are far lower, and the threshold for intention would not be met."

NetSafe executive director Martin Cocker believed the judge made the right decision. "Social networks are public spaces," he said.

"Users can limit the number of people who directly receive a message - but not the audience that could eventually see a message that is passed on or reposted.

"Reposting or passing on digital content is so common that it is reasonable to assume it will happen with any content posted to social network pages."

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One of the current challenges was that the law often needed to definitively rule a space as either public or private - but technology had created spaces that could be considered both, he said.

"If Mr Sculllin had used the private messaging feature in Facebook, then it would be reasonable to say they expected it to remain private."

A police spokesman said: "Police consider each case on its merits, and where there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the solicitor-general's guidelines for prosecution, one is undertaken."

Scullin could not be contacted.

- The Dominion Post

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