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The crushing effects of cyberbullying have been revealed in a Dublin courtroom – and the case doesn’t involve children or teenagers.

Instead, a rare conviction for online harassment was secured against a middle-aged man who made false and abusive comments on Facebook about a woman he had known for years.

Despite fears that laws can’t keep up with the harm being done to people in the digital realm and need to be rewritten, the case shows that this sort of behaviour is already a crime and can be successfully prosecuted.

Actor Justine O’Rourke told Dublin Metropolitan District Court how her reputation, her career and her confidence were shattered in the summer of 2017 by a series of posts, comments, private messages and emails written by Paul Murphy, now aged 61, of Castle Avenue in Clontarf.

Murphy eventually pleaded guilty to harassment, and this month, on 17 April, he was sentenced to eight months in prison – though Judge Grainne Malone suspended the sentence for two years after Murphy paid €1,500 compensation to his victim and agreed never to contact her again.

Sentencing Murphy, Judge Malone said the victim had suffered “utter trauma as a result of Mr Murphy’s actions, with lasting effect”, citing his particularly “spiteful” comments attacking O’Rourke’s qualities as a mother to her two teenage sons.

Those comments about her mothering, like some of the other offensive material, were not sent directly to O’Rourke, nor was she tagged in all the relevant Facebook posts and replies.

So prosecution for harassment under current law can be successful even when some of the evidence does not relate to a perpetrator making direct contact with an injured party. The public nature of the offending material was one reason the prosecution was pursued.

Murphy was prosecuted for harassment under 22-year-old legislation: Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997 – where the definition of the crime of harassment includes “by any means including by use of the telephone”.

A private member’s bill from Labour leader Brendan Howlin to update cyberbullying legislation is currently going through Dáil Éireann, with all-party support.

A 2016 Law Reform Commission report on “harmful communications and digital safety” suggested that while the old law can cover online issues, “harassment by digital or online means is under-reported and under-prosecuted, which suggests that this section is not effective in targeting this behaviour”.

That report and the issues paper that preceded it cited only four previous cases of convictions for what might be regarded as cyber-based harassment in this state – of which only one involved this sort of ugly web-posting.

The others involved harassing texts and emails and, in one case, a”>hidden camera in a hospital locker room, but no obvious public online dimension.

The main obvious change in the Howlin bill would be to allow once-off acts like posting”>“revenge porn” to be prosecuted – current law on harassment requires that acts are “persistent”.

Murphy was charged under the existing law after investigating gardaí at O’Rourke’s local station in Terenure, Dublin, sent a file on the case to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

The DPP recommended in 2018 that Murphy be prosecuted by gardaí at District Court level, where the maximum sentence for the offence is 12 months. Judge Malone said at Murphy’s sentencing hearing that his “extremely serious offence” could have merited a prosecution in the Circuit Court, where harassment carries a maximum seven-year sentence.

In her victim impact statement, O’Rourke recounted how Murphy initially used a mutual friend’s Facebook post to make an abusive comment about her in June 2017.

Murphy wrote: “I have never met such a scheming, conniving woman in all my life.”

Appearing to address her directly, he wrote: “You have screwed as much money as you ever will out of [countless] men, some married,” adding “you always feel you can use your looks and your body to turn mens [sic] heads.”

O’Rourke told the court in her statement that she “never took a penny off any men, married or otherwise – I’m an independent working single parent and I can fend for myself.”

She said Murphy continued with further posts and comments, and she complained to gardaí soon after. “I did not sleep – Paul was asked several times by different guards in Terenure not to post things about me or my children but he continued to do so and all the post[s] remained on his page.”

Murphy also sent O’Rourke emails and private messages “warning me I’d picked the wrong person to mess with and how he would see me in court and report me to social welfare.”

O’Rourke, who is employed in retail, told the court: “there never was anything to report.”

Murphy, who described himself on social media as a writer, said in another Facebook comment addressed to O’Rourke: “I have been to your house. There is never any food in the fridge, nor even a school uniform organised. Any morning, all they see is the man you shagged last night, drinking coffee. As a Mother, you are a disgrace.”

Murphy also alleged that O’Rourke had arranged for other people to threaten him with violence.

“I was living in fear every day as to what would be posted next about me and my children, as the lies were very elaborate and far fetched,” O’Rourke said in her statement to the court. “Paul was reaching a large number of sympathisers on FB … I was extremely upset as all the contacts and people I’d spent years networking and working on films with could see the depraved posts about my alleged sex life and how I neglected both of my children.”

O’Rourke became ill and was diagnosed with ME, then prescribed antidepressants. “I was going over everything that had been written about me and sent to me, to the point of a having a mental nervous breakdown.”

She slowly withdrew from her acting career: “Many people believed what was being written and I felt I was being destroyed – this not only caused me great anguish but also my children and family too, seeing my good reputation and name being dragged through the mud … I noticed a good few contacts had unfriended me and eventually the stress became too much and I decided to give up the acting.”

This was “devastating”, she said, “but my confidence and reputation had been destroyed and I felt everybody was talking about me. It had gotten too difficult to apply for roles and auditions”.

She told the court she “contacted Women’s Aid several times in tears over what was happening and was in touch with the guards regularly looking for help”.

Her children were “put in a vulnerable, helpless situation”, she said. She missed events such as her younger son’s last day in primary school, she said, because she was too stressed and fatigued to drive, and her older son’s performance on the Junior Cert was affected because her “mental state and health” were “so compromised at the time”.

Her older son “unfriended me on FB as he didn’t want to be connected to what was going on and he requested that I delete the hundreds of photos which followed him growing up over the years that were on FB”.

At her children’s request, all her social media accounts are now private, O’Rourke told the court. “I’m very wary of social media and what I post. I still don’t speak to many of the contacts I made over the years and no longer show my face at film screenings, or fundraisers, or events where people know what was being said about me.”

Judge Malone noted that while Murphy had pleaded guilty to the charge and expressed remorse to a probation officer, he had been slow to do these things initially and “added to Ms O’Rourke’s distress” by dragging out the case.

In giving him a suspended sentence, Malone noted that she was required by law to take into account Murphy’s lack of previous criminal record.

Judge Malone was prepared to order that the sentencing hearing on 17 April should be held in closed court, but O’Rourke asked, through the prosecuting garda, that the hearing should be held in public.

In doing so, she not only helped expose one particularly cruel act of misogynistic abuse, but also offered hope for other victims that 20th-century law is in fact equipped to deal with some forms of cyber-crime.

Harry Browne

Harry Browne lectures in the School of Media, TU Dublin, where he jointly coordinates the Centre for Critical Media Literacy.

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