Last month a Solicitor of 32 years’ experience was suspended for 18 months for tweeting a series of offensive comments about Islam, Judaism and Catholicism and in relation to a drag artist. While one would hope that few solicitors would make similar comments, the determination by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) is a reminder of the importance for solicitors of acting professionally both in their public and private life.
The Solicitor in this case (DD) used her Twitter account, which publicly identified her as a solicitor, to tweet inappropriate and offensive comments over a period of 14 months, from January 2016. The first significant example of this was a tweet in which she said “All women must carry staining pepper spray, learn self defence and do everything necessary to rid the world of Islam”. DD was undeterred by tweets from members of the public commenting on the inappropriateness her message, particularly in view of the fact that she was a solicitor, and continued to post messages expressing hostility towards Islam.
DD tweeted similarly offensive comments about Catholicism and Judaism and in March 2017 she commented on a photo in which a woman wearing a niqab and a drag artist were sitting next to each other by tweeting “they both look stupid and unemployable and therefore pointless”. This comment was of particular concern to the SDT given that DD was involved in recruitment at her firm.
DD admitted the allegations and that her actions amounted to a lack of integrity (in breach of SRA Principle 2) and that she failed to act in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in her and in the provision of legal services (in breach of SRA Principle 6).
In explaining her actions, DD referred to the “curse” of Twitter and claimed that her tweets were not premediated. She mentioned the instantaneous nature of Twitter and claimed that she “overreacted” in “moments of madness”, that she “spent seconds, or milliseconds, considering her tweets before publishing them”. While the SDT accepted that individual texts “may have been drafted spontaneously in the heat of the moment and without reflection, there was a series of offending tweets which could not be described as spontaneous. The conduct was persistent and protracted”.
DD’s explanation highlights the danger of social media, where it is so easy to post comments without giving any thought to the potential impact or consequences. The risk is such that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published a warning notice this time last year reminding solicitors that we should “take care to make sure that communication is always professional, lawful and does not cause offence”. They specifically warned that “online comments posted in a personal capacity and which might be deemed offensive or inappropriate could be classed as misconduct if the poster can be identified as a solicitor”.
As pointed out in our previous blog on the subject, it is vital for all professionals to think before they tweet. While the tweets in this case were at the more extreme end of the scale in terms of inappropriateness, even one ill-judged remark can have serious consequences for lawyers. The ability for lawyers to express themselves on social media carries with it many benefits: it is helpful for networking, profile raising and participating in public debates and discussions on topical issues. Lawyers are able to reach more people by sitting at their computer in a few minutes than they could hope to do in person in a few weeks. However, this is a double-edged sword: we should all bear in mind the risks associated in making comments on such a public and permanent platform.