Policeman to pay over $100k for defaming female colleague

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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A male police officer who used a WhatsApp group chat to accuse a female colleague of rendering sexual favours to advance her positions in the profession, was found guilty on Tuesday of defamation.

The defendant was ordered to pay the complainant $75,000 in damages, plus costs, $14,000 on the counter claim he brought against her and which was dismissed, plus $17,000 prescribed cost.

In passing judgment, Justice Frank Seepersad said he found that messages on WhatsApp, which gives a false sense of security that it is a private can be subject to the laws of libel, memes, as well as, online comments.

He said WhatsApp used as a medium to transfer information and discuss issues or events, can give one a misguided measure of security that it is a private forum, but can also be used for the transmission of defamatory content.

He said the forum needed regulation.

“Social media and messaging services are here to stay. They form an integral part of our daily lives but these forums must be managed in a measured manner and restraint has to be exercised.”

The matter before him had its genesis back in January 2020 where both officers were part of a group chat called Central Watch, which consisted of over 211 police officers.

They both commented on a message sent by another member who referred to an officer who had been arrested.

In her statement, the female officer said none of her comments referred to or described the defendant in any way, yet he responded to the message by attacking her professional integrity and reputation while accusing her of criminal conduct.

She contended that the message contained malicious falsehoods, calculated, and in fact, injured her reputation and professional standing. She said it caused her distress and embarrassment, that she was shunned by fellow law-enforcement officers and it exposed her to become a victim of hatred and ridicule.

Seepersad ruled that he found the libel to be significant and grave as the defendant “impugned the claimants honour, professional competence and integrity when he posted that the WPC used sex to get into the Task Force.”

He relied on the acceptance of the defendant that the comment he made was based on his belief that the claimant had slept around to be in the Task Force although there was no evidence to establish justification.

“The statement made was offensive, not only to the claimant, but showed a general disregard for women who are often shamed for their sexuality used to belittle them.”

However aggrieved the defendant may have been, based on the claimant’s post, Seepersad said there was no justification for the attack based on her sexuality.

In doing so, the male officer not only challenged her integrity, but her professional competence in suggesting, on a private chat with 211 of her colleagues, that she got the job only because she slept around.

“Far too often, women are viewed as soft targets. There seem to be social and societal tendency to always objectify women.”

“They are referred to, during Carnival time, as ‘bumpers.’ Images are often readily circulated in social domain, of women in provocative or tight clothing and ultimately, the evidence again establishes that almost a default position.

“Very often when women are being attacked, is either to attach her appearance or her sexuality or the way in which she tries to use her body.”

In the context of the statements being made by the police officer, someone who is entrusted to uphold the law, Seepersad said, “There is cause for alarm because it demonstrates how far we have to go and how much work has to be done for our men to start seeing our women as equals and to understand that their sexuality has not impacted or play on how they perform their functions, neither should it be considered as a criterion for upward mobility within any sphere of operation.

“Any woman who is accused of using her body to advance her prospects at her job would suffer an acute sense of embarrassment and distress by those statements as it significantly also undermines her professional competence.”

The claimant was represented by Kiev Chesney and Chelsea Stewart, while Taradath Singh represented the defendant.