Legal Briefs: Guidance On Photos At School Events

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With some schools introducing no-photo policies for events such as First Communions, school concerts and sports days, all in the name of GDPR, Alex Hoffman of Pierse McCarthy Lucey Solicitors reviews some timely guidance on photos at school events…

Confirmation and First Communion season is all but over, and school sports days are just around the corner.

While generally regarded as happy occasions, which live long in the memories of children and parents alike, the issue of photographs at such events has become something of a headache for schools and parents.

It is almost a year since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect and, it’s fair to say that it has become the most abused and over-used excuse since “the dog ate my homework”.

We’ve all heard stories of schools banning photographs being taken at school events, first communions, sports days etc., all in the name of GDPR. I’ve even heard of a local sports club whose 2019 calendar hasn’t a single player photo on it. The reason? Why, GDPR of course.

To be fair, the whole area of data protection and GDPR is confusing and you would have sympathy for schools, clubs and voluntary organisations trying to grapple with its complexities.

To her credit, the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has been mindful of this and over the past twelve months she has issued a number of guidance notes in which she has applied GDPR to everyday scenarios (in the coming weeks I will have a piece on her guidance regarding dash cam footage).

Since the start of the year she has also released a number of blogs, one of which addresses the nebulous issue of taking photos at school events.

While there may be valid and practical reasons for a school adopting a no-photo policy for school events, blaming it entirely on GDPR is misleading.

While it is true to say that schools, as data controllers, are within the sphere of GDPR and must adhere to strict rules and regulations when handling the personal data of their students, which would include photos at school events, the same cannot necessarily be said for the parents and families of their students.

In short, where family or friends take photos for personal use and enjoyment the Commissioner considers such events “to fall under the so-called “household exemption”, which provides that the GDPR does not apply when a person processes personal data (for example, a photograph of someone) in the course of a purely personal or household activity, e.g. with no connection to a professional, business, official or commercial activity”.

While that would seem to give parents, family and friends free reign to take photographs at school event, what happens if Mommy or Daddy wants to post or share a photo of their beloved Johnny on facebook?

In that regard the Commissioner points out that the GDPR doesn’t prohibit this and in fact states that personal or household activities could include social networking. All ok so far.

The difficulty arises however where one of Johnny’s friends is also in the photo, whether intentionally or not, and the friend’s parents don’t want their child’s image posted on-line or want the photo taken down.

While she doesn’t specify who has the law on their side in that scenario, the Commissioner is quite rightly of the view that “common sense and indeed common courtesy would suggest that you should take the photo down”.

Where the photo is taken at a school event, it is easy to see how the school might get dragged into a dispute between parents, and this is the very scenario which schools are trying to avoid by introducing blanket bans on photography.

At the end of the day however, it is essentially an issue between the parents, and has nothing to do with the school and whether or not it is adhering to its data protection obligations. GDPR has a bad enough reputation without it adding to it unfairly.

As Helen Dixon puts it, like many issues in life, “a balanced and common-sense approach will go a long way towards ensuring that individuals’ rights are respected, while also ensuring that data protection doesn’t become an obstacle to capturing and celebrating significant school events”.

• Alex Hoffman has considerable experience in Agricultural Law, Commercial Law, Probate and the Administration of Estates, Taxation, Residential Conveyancing. A Bachelor of Laws in Law & European Studies, AITI Chartered Tax Adviser (CTA).

To make an appointment with Alex Hoffman, contact Pierse McCarthy Lucey Solicitors, 9 Ashe Street, Tralee, between 9:00am and 5:30pm Monday to Friday, on 066 7122900 or email

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