Wednesday, January 24, 2007

No freedom to criticise CYFS

It should come as no surprise that people hate CYFS. Any organisation which separates parents from their children, however justified, is going to attract a fair amount of strong feeling - even if they had a perfect record and their interventions were never based on vicious smears by ex-partners, and never resulted in tragedy. Being composed of fallible human beings, working in often very murky situations and against the backdrop of a society which will not tolerate children being left in reportedly abusive households (which in turn promotes a "better safe than sorry" attitude), CYFS' record is far from perfect - which hardly encourages those they deal with to like them. Apparently, though, people aren't allowed to express this hatred or criticise their actions on the internet. The Ministry of Social Development's response to the CYFSWatch blog, which provides an anonymous platform for people to recount their bad experiences with CYFS, and "names and shames" the social workers involved, is simple: lawyers have been instructed to

do whatever is necessary to get rid of this website

In a democratic society, this response is simply chilling.

A comparison with the (now departed) RedWatch is appropriate here. RedWatch was a neo-Nazi site established to "build a catalogue of information and pictures of the Left" - including names, addresses, phone numbers, and pictures of where people live. The purpose was clearly intimidation and to encourage violence against those listed on the basis of their political beliefs. However, while its content was vile and its purpose clear, it stopped short of criminal incitement, and no specific crimes were linked to the site (unlike the UK version).

Compared to this, CYFSWatch doesn't even come close. Oh, its abusive and defamatory, but it doesn't encourage violence to anything like the same degree as RedWatch. And while it has threatened to publish addresses, it doesn't seem to have posted photos of people's homes, partners and pets. While its content was loathsome, there was no justification to close RedWatch down, and the same is even more true in this case. I may not like it - but people I don't like are as free to speak as those I do. And in a free and democratic society, that is something the government should remember.

As for the defamation angle, CYFS or those named can of course try suing - but I expect they will quickly learn the joys of the internet. We have a free market in legal jurisdiction now, and this provides a great deal of insulation from legal action. More importantly, even if a site can be taken down, the "victory" may only be temporary, as it can easily be put back up elsewhere, usually within a day. The government can try playing whack-a-mole with CYFSWatch, but this will simply make them look thuggish and stupid. A better response would simply be to ignore it, and accept the fact that in this day and age, they cannot stop people from saying bad things about them.


I'm a very strong believer in freedom of speech, but, like all rights that particular one doesn't exist in isolation from other rights and responsibilities. And, just as with situations in the family court, there are times when freedom of speech needs to be balanced against privacy rights and safety rights of individuals. I think this is such a case where CYFSWatch should be moderated. Putting aside the legal jurisdiction issues on the internet, writers should not be ignoring that ethical duty to be balancing people's rights and responsibilities before publishing.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/24/2007 12:15:00 PM

To me this is exactly what libel laws are for - to protect ordinary social workers doing a difficult job. It should be remembered that libel has to be demonstrably untrue.

I think there is a reasonable chance of enforcing a libel injunction in this case. Firstly, I believe most hosting businesses will respond to an injunction, even one from overseas. Secondly, it is likely that CYFS will have an idea of who the perpetrators might be and will be able to get court orders to seize and examine their computers (and given that the kind of probable child/partner abusers who usually do this kind of thing aren't very bright, they probably haven't covered their tracks very well).

Posted by Rich : 1/24/2007 01:22:00 PM

Defamation is the appropriate venue for redress, not shutting down the website. Of course, truth is a defence in cases of defamation; that the CYF response is to go for a shutdown of the site rather than defamation suits then conveys some information...

Posted by Anonymous : 1/24/2007 01:24:00 PM

Perhaps CYFS should retaliate by putting up a site naming and shaming bad families such as those that kill their children, or breed kitten torturers. ( The press isn't doing that in enough cases.

Posted by Hans Versluys : 1/24/2007 01:35:00 PM

My mother recently retired from ACC, she was a case manager there. There is a similar website for ACC in regards to the name and shame, however I don't think it publishes home phone numbers or addresses.

I know my mother is unlisted because of dangerous clients, I know there have been cases of cliets following case managers home.

I am certainly of the opinion that listing private details is beyond the pale. These people are publically available in their professional sphere but their families should be left out of it. Publishing their details makes stalking and intimidation very easy and I don't think it offends free speech for it to be taken off the website.

Posted by Muerk : 1/24/2007 03:10:00 PM

Whatever did happen to John Tamihere's cats?

Posted by Unknown : 1/24/2007 03:59:00 PM

Bloggers policy:
"Defamation/Libel. Users should not publish any content that is unlawful, defamatory, and fraudulent. Note that an allegation of defamatory expression, in and of itself, does not establish defamation. The truth or falsehood of a bit of expression is a key element in establishing defamation, and we are not in a position to make that sort of fact-based judgment. That said, if we have reason to believe that a particular statement is defamatory (a court order, for example), we will remove that statement."

Which basically decodes to saying that to takedown a site, they need an injunction. So CYFS would need to prove the allegations untrue in any case.

Posted by Rich : 1/24/2007 04:38:00 PM

Muerk: Oh, it's beyond the pale - but it's not illegal. So as with RedWatch, while I don't like what they're saying, I see no justification to silence them.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/24/2007 05:15:00 PM

Having seen this website, I am of the considered opinion that the appropriate response would be for the CYFS management to reward the persons "named and shamed" thereon with a handsome performance bonus for rescuing at-risk children from the deeply creepy individuals who run that site.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/24/2007 07:30:00 PM

I/S: I think the right to privacy here outweighs the right of free speech.

But then I can't offer any way to enforce that. I don't want to see the laws changed (because they would be so easy to misuse), so I am at a bit of a loss.

Posted by Muerk : 1/24/2007 08:33:00 PM

Most New Zealanders don't fully understand depth of human ugliness we expect CYF's workers to work in. Sifting through the worst garbage of kiwi’s lives with always some vulnerable children at centre place. Many of these workers are new young graduates straight out of university - all idealistically wanting to do good for children and so often they are abused, threatened and intimidated. Mistakes are made - naive trust is put in violent parents where it shouldn’t have been and children are hurt. We only ever hear the bad as the good must stay with the privacy these vulnerable children need.

Does the naming and attempted shaming website reperesent freedom of speech or just another way already abusive parents can use intimidation to keep CYF’s from doing the job we expect them to do ?

Posted by Anonymous : 1/25/2007 12:16:00 AM

It looks like one of the "brains" behind the CYFSwatch site has now outed himself: "dad4justice" from the TradeMe message board talks about "We at cyfswatch" on message 238 of this topic:

Posted by Anonymous : 2/06/2007 09:08:00 PM