Police to Investigate Bigotry by Police on Social Media

by Sonia Hickey
Queensland police officer

An investigation has been ordered by Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll into a Facebook page where racist, sexist and homophobic posts were allegedly published by Queensland Police officers is now underway.

The page was set up by a senior officer about a year ago.

Called “Defend the Blue,” the Commissioner says the private group was started with “good intentions” including mental health support and banter amongst fellow officers.

However, it degenerated over time into a platform where bigoted comments were posted about Indigenous people, Immigrants, women and homosexuals.

Offensive comments

Some of the controversial posts used racist language to ostensibly support Northern Territory Police Constable Zach Rolfe, who is on trial for the alleged murder of Indigenous man Kumanjayi Walker, sexist language towards Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and other female state government MPs, claimed women are incapable of performing certain tasks, and criticised homosexual people.

The Facebook group has 3,600 members; about 1700 of whom are current or former Queensland police officers.

In response to a warning earlier this week that the page would be shut down, about 400 members left the group overnight, many deleting their posts.

This, and the fact that many of the people in the group are using pseudonyms, could hinder the identification process.

Broader bigotry in the QPS

The police commissioner has downplayed the suggestion that the page reflects broader bigotry in the QPS, saying a “minority” of officers engaged in “unacceptable things”.

She says the group was not operating within QPS values or community expectations.

Ms Carroll says the group’s administrators ‘will be spoken to’ and ‘disciplinary action’ will be taken if necessary.

The QPS ethical Standards Command is undertaking the investigation, but it is not clear whether its report will be made public.

Police on social media

It’s not the first time police officers have been questioned about the ‘appropriateness’ of social media posts.

Last year, a police officer from Mackay vented his frustration about Queensland police banning officers from wearing the “thin blue line” patch, which has been linked to far-right groups.

While the QPS is currently updating and ‘strengthening’ its own social media policy, there are precedents in both the private and public sector where “unprofessional conduct’ on social media has resulted in suspension of employment or dismissal.

The incident clearly shows the need for more training too – about what is considered ‘appropriate’ and what may be ‘offensive’.

Page administrators can be sued for defamation

With social media such an intrinsic part of our lives, it can be easy not to think about what we’re posting or the choice of words we make when commenting, but it is more critical than ever. T

he internet has a long memory, but aside from that, In New South Wales, page administrators risk being sued for defamation for inappropriate comments, even when they are written by other people.

A decision by the Supreme Court of New South Wales last year, upheld by the NSW Court of Appeal, in a civil case taken out by Dylan Voller against Fairfax Media, Nationwide News and Sky News has determined that administrators of Facebook pages may be considered the ‘publishers’ of posts by others, and may therefore be liable for defamatory comments.

The ruling sends a warning to account holders and page administrators everywhere.

In the same way that building owners have been sued over defamatory graffiti (because they failed to remove it), or a newspaper can be sued over comments made in a Letter to the Editor, the ruling makes clear that account holders may be held responsible for posts by others.

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Author

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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