Express it through the medium of dance

Geraldine Swanton

For many years we have been engaged in a crusade to impose restraint on staff committing thoughts to emails. That crusade has assumed renewed vigour today while reading a student complaint alleging that his institution had discriminated against him.  Weapons in his armoury were copies of emails sent between staff expressing their genuinely held, but overly candid, views on the complainant.  “He’s playing the gay card”! one proclaimed.  “Now that he’s accused us of discrimination, we will not go out of our way to help him” another cried.  “I think he has mental health problems” a third mused. Then someone entirely unconnected to the complaint, but who had sympathy for the student, provided his unsolicited view that the student has been “appallingly treated and should be given a full refund of fees for this academic year.”

The student, like many other disgruntled individuals, invoked his rights of access under the Data Protection Act (DPA) to determine whether his desire to complain could be substantiated.  Under the DPA, he has a right to obtain a permanent copy of his personal data contained in emails and in other records, electronic or manual.  “Personal data” is defined to include any expressions of opinion about the student and any statement of the intentions of the institution with regard to him.  If his desire had been a little tentative before the disclosure, he was galvanised afterwards and submitted complaints of direct discrimination (sexual orientation and disability), discrimination arising from disability, a failure to make reasonable adjustments and victimisation. He was also provided with proof that, at the very least, a claim for victimisation had merit.

No one wishes to apply a thought-police-style regime to staff.  However, staff should be encouraged to refrain from recording in emails hostile or intemperate opinions or other commentary that prejudices the institution’s position. All emails should be drafted as professional correspondence whose content will at some point be viewed by an unintended third party – the subject of the email or a court, for example.  If you do have an irresistible desire to unload some invective, pick up the phone or, better still, express it through the medium of dance.

Geraldine Swanton
Senior Associate Solicitor
Education Team
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
DD: 0800 763 1455
M:  07921 759 834
F: 0800 763 1855
International DD: +44 870 763 1455

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