Australian principal win defamation lawsuit against parents

Newstalk ZB /,
Publish Date
Tue, 3 Mar 2020, 1:05PM
Donna Baluskas breaks down after meeting Kathleen Toplis outside court, Kathleen told Donna her son took his own life after attending Tamborine Mountain State High School. Picture: Adam HeadSource:News Corp Australia

Australian principal win defamation lawsuit against parents

Newstalk ZB /,
Publish Date
Tue, 3 Mar 2020, 1:05PM

Parents and the principal at a Queensland school involved in a bitter legal battle over online comments have spoken about the incident.

Parents at the Queensland school were upset over their child being disciplined, had “had a few bourbons” or were simply joining in the mob’s pile-on when they made social media comments about the school’s principal that will end up costing them dearly.

Tamborine Mountain State High School principal Tracey Brose was briefly suspended on full pay following a complaint that ended up being unproven.

She was reinstated a couple of months later, after a petition had been started by parents campaigning against her suspension.

But that petition of support was also used to attack the principal.

Several parents made comments on the post that resulted in eight of them being sued for defamation.

Tamborine Mountain High School parents Donna and Miguel Baluskas, Laura Lawson and Trudie Arnold arrive at Southport court on Friday. Picture: Adam Head

Tamborine Mountain High School parents Donna and Miguel Baluskas, Laura Lawson and Trudie Arnold arrive at Southport court on Friday. Picture: Adam HeadSource:News Corp Australia

The posts were made almost four years ago, but it wasn’t until last Friday that a court ruled two parents had defamed the principal and ordered them to pay damages.

Two others had their case dismissed.

Ms Brose said the defamation case was “never about the money”, but will still receive almost $190,000 all up.

Three parents had already settled out of court, for a total of $182,500.

Donna and Miguel Baluskas will have to pay a further $6,000 after losing the case.

The pair spoke to 60 Minutes about what drove them to make the comments.

An incident on the school bus involving a “silly, immature” comment made by their son Harrison resulted in him being expelled.

Ms Baluskas told 60 Minutes - and had earlier alleged in court - Ms Brose called their son a sexual predator, which the principal denied.

The Baluskas met with Ms Brose and the deputy principal of the school to discuss the expulsion, a meeting in which Miguel told the deputy principal to “shut up” and “stare out the window”.

“I’m here to talk to the head not the arse,” Miguel said he told them.

“Our experience with Tracy Brose, it wasn’t a pleasant one at all,” Ms Baluskas said.

That unpleasant experience led to some unpleasant comments.

The comments from some parents sparked others to weigh in.

“I’d had a couple bourbons and I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook,” Trudie Arnold said.

“There was some horrendous comments on there, like, really, really bad ones. Someone wanted her dead, some called her dreadful names, horrible. I thought ‘Oh bugger it, I’ll have a go too’.”

Ms Arnold thought the principal had ignored her daughter Madison in favour of brighter students before she left the school.

But Ms Arnold doesn’t think the comments went too far and the judge agreed.

“If I was the principal of a high school I’d take it in my stride, really.”

Screenshots of the comments were sent to Ms Brose by her brother.

“I was devastated. I just sat and sobbed hysterically,” she said.

“They were words meant to hurt. There was no other purpose other than to hurt me.”

Ms Brose decided to get the law involved and ordered a lawyer to tell the parents to apologise or face being sued for defamation.
Some of the parents did apologise, but not Ms Arnold, and certainly not the Baluskas’.

“You can tell your client to stick her offer up her arse,” Mr Baluskas said in a letter back.

Opting not to apologise, the Baluskas then faced a lawsuit they believe is vindictive.

“She's out for revengeance [sic] on anybody that speaks out against her,” Ms Baluskas said. “We’re parents that made complaints and now she’s out to get us.”

The resulting lawsuit has ended up costing the Baluskas’ dearly.
They are now bankrupt. Their lawyer owns their house.

Ms Arnold and another parent, Laura Lawson, also refused to apologise, but the court ended up ruling they hadn’t defamed the principal.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t still paid dearly.

“We’ve got nothing, I don’t own a home,” Ms Arnold said.

Ms Lawson said she had “nothing left to lose”.

But Ms Brose stands by her decision to sue.

“They’ve lost their home trying to make bad decisions to defend statements they put online,” she said.

The long running court case stretched over years, and sometimes pushed the defendants to lash out.

In May of 2018, Mr Baluskas showed up at Ms Brose’s home while she sat inside watching TV with her husband Peter and their three children.

Phone footage of the incident shows Mr Baluskas yelling from outside the door, before eventually kicking through the glass pane.

Despite scaring Ms Brose’s children into running upstairs to hide in cupboards, Mr Baluskas isn’t apologising for that incident either.

“What I did is what I said I was going to do,” an unrepentant Mr Baluskas said. “I said open the door and talk to me or I’ll open the door for you.”

Mr Baluskas ended up being convicted for unlawful damage over that incident.

His most recent day in court didn’t go well for him either after the judge found he and his wife had defamed Ms Brose.

Outside the court, Ms Baluskas began to wail after she was approached by a supporter, a mother of a former Tamborine Mountain State High student who reportedly told Ms Baluskas their child had since committed suicide.

While the judge did say Ms Brose had an at times “selective” memory, she was still vindicated by the decision.

“If the attention on this case saves one teacher going through what I have gone through, then it’s all been worth it,” she said.

The Baluskas’ spoke outside court saying the case was another example of the flaws in Australia’s defamation laws.

While the bitter dispute shines further focus on defamation law in Australia, which many think is too strict, the case also illustrates one of the biggest problems on social media, that is repeatedly spilling into the real world.

“There is no truth meter on social media, that is the problem,” Ms Brose said.