A university student union’s president (the complainant) was given a written warning for neglecting to meet a number of her job’s key performance indicators. The warning was delivered in a formal letter from the vice president on behalf of the student union executive.
Soon after, excerpts from the letter were published in a university magazine as part of a story about dysfunction in the student union.
The student union president wrote to complain to us about the magazine that published the letter and the vice president who gave the letter to the magazine.
News media exemption
The Privacy Act only applies to ‘agencies’. Section 2 of the Act specifies that a news medium is not an agency when it is carrying out tasks in relation to its news activities.
The Privacy Act does not apply to the student magazine in this case because publishing excerpts from the letter was related to its news activities.
The investigation focused on the person who allegedly gave the letter to the student magazine.
Privacy principle 11 stipulates that personal information should not be disclosed for purposes other than those for which the information was obtained in the first place. There are exceptions, but none of the exceptions applied in this instance.
In this case, the information was obtained because of the respondent’s role as vice president of the student union. The letter’s purpose was to inform the student president of her job performance.
Disclosing that information to the student magazine was not directly connected to this purpose, and was therefore in breach of principle 11.
Harm caused by the breach
A breach of a privacy principle does not mean there has been an interference with privacy. An interference with privacy comes from a breach in privacy causing harm. The Privacy Act recognises significant humiliation, significant loss of dignity and significant injury to feelings as forms of harm.
Releasing the letter caused significant harm to the complainant. Students sent her hate mail and previously-healthy working relationships became strained. She suffered from anxiety, headaches and panic attacks. She had to go on anti-anxiety prescription medication to manage these symptoms.
We formed the opinion that these outcomes met the threshold for significant humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
Inability to reach settlement
The complainant wanted substantial financial damages and an apology from the respondent. The respondent insisted that he had not breached the Privacy Act. Neither party was prepared to move from these positions.
We usually try to settle cases, but in this instance the leaking and publication of the letter was part of an ongoing dysfunctional relationship between the complainant and the respondent. As an example of this, the respondent had also allegedly poured coffee on the complainant; sent her more than 150 emails a week and attempted to remove property from her office.
The dysfunctional relationship, combined with the distance between their negotiating positions, prevented us from reaching a settlement.
When we are unable to settle we can either close a case or refer it to the Director of Human Rights Proceedings, who may choose to represent the complainant before the Human Rights Review Tribunal.
Given the substantial harm caused to the complainant, we referred the case to the Director of Human Rights Proceedings, who took action against the respondent.
The Human Rights Review Tribunal went on to award the complainant $18,000 to compensate her for her humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to her feelings. The Tribunal also ordered the respondent to undertake training on the Privacy Act.
News media exemption ─ personal information ─ disclosure ─ Human Rights Review Tribunal ─ Privacy Act 1993; principle 11; ss 2, 66