A university student described as “deeply disappointing” and “disgraceful” the Oireachtas committee’s refusal to investigate his complaint against socialist TD Paul Murphy for retweeting another student’s social media post later found to be in breach of the code of conduct NUI Galway student.
Simeon Burke, from Castlebar, Co Mayo, complained to NUIG authorities after a student, who had clashed with Mr Burke over student politics, tweeted an image on February 22, 2021. The image included Mr. Burke’s name and photo and appeared to depict him holding a sign with sexually explicit words.
Burke alleged that it was a reproduced and edited image of him holding a piece of paper, with digitally manipulated sexually explicit language that he had never written or sustained. She alleged that the post amounted to sexual harassment of him and cyberbullying.
The university’s dean of students requested that that post and other posts Mr. Burke complained about be removed. Mr. Burke claimed that the application had little to no success and the post was retweeted and he was liked by several other students. His complaint against Mr. Murphy relates to the TD’s retweet of the post on February 25, 2021 as part of an alleged campaign by the student cartel and others, run under the hashtag #freecian, which claimed that Mr. Murphy’s response the university to Mr. Burke’s complaint restricted freedom of expression. expression.
The #freecian campaign amounted to sustained online abuse and intimidation of him and was fueled by Murphy’s retweet of the post, Burke said. His name and the name of the university trended nationally on Twitter on February 25, he said.
On April 1, 2021, the university’s discipline committee established an independent investigative panel into their complaint about the student’s publication. In a 62-page report from August 2021, the panel described the image that was part of the post as “sexual in nature” and consisting of sexual images related to the image of Mr. Burke. The discipline committee found that the material involved sexual harassment and intimidation of Mr Burke under the NUI Galway code of conduct. Ten students were formally disciplined in connection with the matter and were required to pay fines, write reflective essays, and/or send letters of apology to Mr. Burke.
Mr Burke separately complained about Mr Murphy’s retweet of the post to the Dáil Secretary, claiming it amounted to cyber-bullying and online abuse by the TD. Last October, the Secretary referred the matter to the Dáil committee on members’ interests, having formed the opinion that Mr Burke had produced sufficient evidence to establish a case in relation to the complaint.
In a letter to Mr. Burke in recent weeks, he was informed that the committee had decided not to investigate the complaint based on its opinion that there was insufficient evidence to support it. The committee is chaired by Joe McHugh and its other members are Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly, Fine Gael TD Michael Creed, Fianna Fáil TD Seán Haughey and Independent TD Noel Grealish.
Burke, now a postgraduate student at Cambridge, UK, told The Irish Times the committee’s decision not to investigate was “deeply disappointing and shameful”. He said that he believed that TD’s retweet of the #freecian post intensified the abuse of himself on social media. That abuse, which included death threats, had had a “devastating” effect on him and he had attended therapy as a result.
Cyberbullying is “very serious” and has resulted in some young people taking their own lives, he said. “The fact that it hasn’t even been investigated speaks volumes about how seriously the committee views it as an issue.” It is relevant that Mr Murphy spoke in support of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offenses Bill during the December 2020 Dáil debate on the subject, he added.
Murphy told The Irish Times that he had retweeted a tweet “describing the fact that a student was facing disciplinary action for posting a satirical tweet on social media”. This occurred in the context of “protecting the right to debate” and students have the right to make “humorous memes,” she said. “I believe that NUIG was wrong to discipline the student in question and I am glad that the members’ interests committee unanimously found that there was no evidence to support the complaint against me.”