The president of a university student union has been awarded $18,000 in compensation for humiliation caused by a colleague leaking a private letter of hers to the university's student magazine.

The union's president lodged a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner after excerpts of a written warning given to her by union's vice president on behalf of its executive appeared in the magazine.

The letter, which reprimanded the president for failing to meet several of her role's key performance objectives, was published as part of a story about dysfunction with the union.

Before the letter was issued the vice president had allegedly poured coffee on the president, sent her more than 150 emails a week and tried to take her belongings from her office.

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After the magazine came out students sent the president hate mail and some of her previously-healthy working relationships became strained.

She suffered from anxiety, headaches and panic attacks and had to go on anti-anxiety medication.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner investigated the case after receiving the young woman's complaint.

It found that the vice president had leaked the letter to the magazine and that by doing so had breached the Privacy Act and caused the president significant emotional harm.

The union president wanted significant financial compensation and an apology from the vice president. However the vice president insisted that he hadn't breached the Act.

The office was unable to reach a settlement and instead referred the case to the Director of Human Rights Proceedings.

The Human Rights Review Tribunal then awarded the president $18,000 compensation for her humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to her feelings.

It also ordered the vice president to be trained in the Privacy Act.

Background

News media are exempt from the Privacy Act, because the wording of the Act specifies that it only applies to agencies and the Act does not classify a news medium as an agency when it is conducting newsgathering and production tasks.

Therefore the Office of the Privacy Commissioner focused its investigation on the person who allegedly leaked the letter to the magazine - the union's vice president.

Principle 11 of the Privacy Act states that information should only be disclosed for the purposes for which it was obtained.

In this case the purpose of the letter was to let the student president know the executive thought her job performance was poor. The vice president knew the letter's contents because of his role.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner ruled the vice president had breached principle 11 when he leaked the letter's contents to the student magazine because the letter was meant to be private.

To award compensation the office must find that a privacy breach has caused the person harm. It defines harm as significant humiliation, significant loss of dignity, or significant injury to feelings.

The investigation found that the letter's publication cause the president significant harm because of the toll it took on her emotionally.