A convicted child abuser who featured on a Facebook page set up to monitor paedophiles in Northern Ireland is to be awarded £20,000 in damages, a High Court judge has ruled.
In a landmark verdict, Mr Justice Stephens held that both the social media giant and page operator Joe McCloskey were liable for misusing private information.
He also ordered that the “Keeping Our Kids Safe From Predators 2” profile at the centre of the lawsuit is to be terminated.
Ruling for the sex offender who brought the privacy action, the judge said information published indiscriminately could have threatened public order and incited violence and hatred.
“It was an attempt to hunt a sex offender, to drive him from his home and to expose him to vilification,” he said.
His judgment is believed to represent the first award of damages against Facebook in a case of this kind.
Lawyers for the sex offender who issued proceedings predicted it could pave the way for compensation claims by many others who feel similarly aggrieved.
The plaintiff, identified only as CG, was released from jail in 2012 after serving a sentence for gross indecency and indecent assault offences against a young girl and a teenage boy.
Now aged in his forties, he remains under supervision by the authorities and has been assessed as posing no significant risk to the public.
He claimed harassment, violation of his right to privacy and breaches of the Data Protection Act against Facebook and Mr McCloskey after his photograph and details appeared on the site in 2013.
Amid a string of abusive comments and information on his location one user called for him to be hung while others endorsed shooting or castrating him.
One of the posters stated: “I would tie him to a tree and put a blow torch where he wouldn’t want it. And enjoy watching him in pain.”
Others called for his whereabouts to be reported to locals, with a recommendation given: “If you see, kill the ****.”
He claimed his fear of violence being inflicted on him was heightened by one of those posting on the page being a former UDA commander who forced him to flee in a past attack on his home.
In evidence CG also claimed he has been threatened with being thrown off a pier during a fishing trip, hounded out of a cinema and had to use a supermarket trolley to fight off another tormentor.
His lawyers argued that the campaign had reached the level of dangerous vigilantism.
Mr McCloskey told the court he has “named and shamed” 400 sex offenders through the page.
He denied being responsible for a witch-hunt or hate campaign, stressing that he included a disclaimer opposing any violence of intimidation.
But delivering judgment in the action, Mr Justice Stephens said an insight into Mr McCloskey’s attitude and purpose can be gained from other internet comments.
In one he stated: “Instead of Hunger Games it should be Paedophile Games, we could hunt them down on live TV and slaughter them.”
Elsewhere he suggested that abusers should be “destroyed” in the same way as a dog who attacks a child.
Later the defendant offered online praise to those whose actions led to a sex offender having to get a police escort out of his neighbourhood.
“He took pride in driving an individual out of his home,” the judge said.
He held that Mr McCloskey set up the Facebook page to “destroy the family life of sex offenders, to expose them to total humiliation and vilification, to drive them from their homes and to expose them to the risk of serious harm”.
The judge added: “He knowingly encourages harassment of sex offenders by other individuals by the comments he makes and by the aim and purpose of the profile/page.”
He described CG’s offences as representing “despicable criminal conduct”.
But according to Mr Justice Stephens the plaintiff and other sex offenders who have served their sentences are to be protected from others who want to harm them or drive them from their homes.
“They should not be ‘hunted’ nor once on notice should an internet company facilitate any ‘hunt’ for them,” he said.
“On the other hand there should be and there are in place public protection arrangements in order to assess the risks they continue to pose together with supervision of them in the community so that the public are protected.”
He ruled that the balancing exercise came down in favour of CG’s right to privacy.
Both Facebook and Mr McCloskey were held liable for misuse of private information, with a further finding against the page operator for unlawful harassment.
The judge said: “All of content of the profile/page ‘Keeping Our Kids Safe From Predators 2’ in relation to CG was oppressive and unreasonable and that there was a course of conduct over a period of time which amounted to harassment of CG and which both of the defendants knew or ought to have known amounted to harassment of him.”
Total damages to be awarded in the case was assessed at £20,000.
It was decided that Mr McCloskey, who had nothing to do with separate postings by the father of one of CG’s victims, is liable for £15,000 of that amount.
A further injunction was granted against him preventing him from harassing CG by publishing any more information on Facebook or elsewhere.
Following the verdict CG’s barrister told Mr Justice Stephens an offer had been made at the start of proceedings to end the claim if Facebook pledged to remove the page and pay £7,500 to a child abuse charity.
Peter Girvan said: “His goal at that stage was to compensate victims of child abuse.
“During the hearing my firm instructions were that any compensation would be used in regard to his father and his son.”
Outside court CG’s solicitor, Kevin Winters claimed the judgment represented the first privacy finding worldwide in relation to third party disclosure by Facebook members.
“For some time now the legal system has been playing catch up with in huge advances in the IT world and social media,” he said.
“Today’s ruling represents a massive leap forward for the courts in keeping pace with the era of the internet.”
Mr Winters also predicted: “There is potentially a huge cost because many people similarly aggrieved can now seek compensation as Facebook and other social media can now be held liable for their members posting of private information on third parties without consent.
“In addition they will now incur significant cost in oversight of systems to prevent repetition of the type of offensive material posted in this case.
“That in turn will help eliminate the type of internet witch hunt seen in this case and allow those lawful authorities tasked with oversight of rehabilitation of sex offenders to do their jobs.”