Social media is always a minefield for officers of the court.
The perils of social media are more acute for lawyers than the general public, an issue which has come to the fore in an unusual matter from the United States.
A judge is accused of creating and posting TikTok videos, containing profanity, graphic sexual references, violence, misogyny and racism.
Judge Gary N. Wilcox, a superior court judge in the Criminal Division in Bergin County, New Jersey, posted the videos under a pseudonym in which he lip-synced popular songs in videos depicting him in his chambers, in the courthouse or in a bed, sometimes showing him in judicial robes or partially dressed.
The videos led to charges from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) which issued a complaint accusing Wilcox of violating several ethical canons of judicial conduct including:
- Failing to observe the high standards of conduct necessary to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary;
- Failing to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and to act at all times in a manner promoting public confidence in the judiciary;
- Failing to conduct extrajudicial activities in a manner that would not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially, demean the judicial office, or interfere with the performance of judicial duties.
The judge admitted the allegation, and noted he had created the account during a COVID shutdown, as it seemed like harmless fun. He noted the videos were created in his own time, and he selected the songs because he liked them, not because he intended to convey any inappropriate message or imagery.
He expressed regret and noted that he did not consult the court’s social media guidelines before using TikTok. Despite the fact the guidelines do not specifically address use of TikTok, he acknowledged he should thought more about his conduct and its potential impact.
While Judge Wilcox’s fate is not yet known, the matter constitutes a warning for all officers of the court, in any jurisdiction: the bar for social media use is set higher than for the rest of the population. His Honour’s efforts would hardly have rated a mention had he been a university student or a real estate agent, but the duties he – and all members of the legal profession – owes are stricter and non-negotiable.
These duties are of particular import when it comes to solicitors, who are in effect the face of Queensland’s legal system.
Anyone who deals with the legal world will almost certainly deal with a solicitor, and how credible the system appears to the public will depend on how solicitors conduct themselves. That is especially the case when it comes to the instantly shareable, forever searchable realms of social media.
Prudent practitioners will think carefully about what – and if – they post; the alternative could be instant infamy, reputational damage and possibly a date with the regulator.
Shane Budden is a Special Counsel, Ethics, with the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre.