Silencing the Bullies

In my last post, I wrote about the decision of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in Crouch v. Snell, 2015 NSSC 340, which struck down that province’s Cyber-Safety Act, a law intended “to provide safer communities by creating administrative and court processes that can be used to address and prevent cyberbullying.” Justice McDougall held that the statute both infringed the freedom of expression and could lead to deprivations of liberty not in accordance with principles of fundamental justice, contrary to sections 2(b) and 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and was not justified under section 1 of the Charter. As I indicated in the conclusion of my last post, I believe that this was the right decision. Here are some thoughts about why that is so, and also about some deficiencies, or unanswered questions, in Justice McDougall’s reasons.

Perhaps the most interesting question Justice McDougall raises is whether the limits the Cyber-Safety Act imposed on the freedom of expression are “prescribed by law” within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter. Justice McDougall holds that they are not, because to issue a “protection order” meant to stop a person from engaging in cyberbullying a justice of the peace or a judge must not only find that that person engaged in cyberbullying in the past, but also that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that [that person] will engage in cyberbullying of the subject in the future.” (Subs. 8(b)) Justice McDougall is concerned that there is no indication in the statute as to what those reasonable grounds might be, and that the procedure, especially the ex-parte procedure before a justice of the peace, will not yield sufficient evidence on the basis of which to decide whether the “reasonable grounds to believe” requirement is met.

I find this reasoning intriguing and perplexing at the same time. It seems to me that Justice McDougall’s real concern is not with the vagueness of the statute’s words ― as is usually the case when courts ask whether a limitation of Charter rights is “prescribed by law” ― but with the procedure the statute creates. The concept of “reasonable grounds to believe” already exists in criminal law without attracting censure for vagueness and, as Justice McDougall himself observes, judges are sometimes asked to determine whether there exists a risk that an offender will re-offend in the future. But such determinations are made on the basis of substantial evidence submitted by both parties to an adversarial process. Here, by contrast, the decision must be made on the basis of (potentially flimsy) evidence submitted by one party alone. I agree that this is disturbing, and ought to be regarded as constitutionally problematic, but I’m not sure that “vagueness” is the appropriate name for this problem. Nor is it obvious that any other part of the Oakes test ought would be a better place to address the issue that Justice McDougall raises. Perhaps we need to recognize a procedural element to the “prescribed by law” prong of section 1, in keeping with Jeremy Waldron’s insight that the Rule of Law, and arguably the very concept of law, are crucially dependent on the existence of certain procedures through which the application of legal norms can be channelled and contested, as well as on formal requirements such as publicity and intelligibility that are better captured by the notion of vagueness.

Another question worth asking about Justice McDougall’s reasons is whether he is correct to find that the ex-parte process created by the Cyber-Safety Act is not rationally connected to the Act‘s objectives, except in emergencies or in cases where it is impossible for a victim of cyber-bullying to identify the perpetrator. Courts have seldom found that a law was not rationally connected to its purposes ― it is usually a low bar. Again, I am sympathetic to Justice McDougall seeing a procedure that give no notice to a person whose writings ― no matter how troublesome ― are about to be censored as a serious problem. Still, I’m not sure that, problematic though it is, an ex parte procedure is an irrational response to legislative concerns with timeliness and accessibility of remedies against cyberbullying, which Justice McDougall acknowledged in his decision. It will be interesting to see if appellate courts approach this issue in the same way as Justice McDougall did.

So much for the procedure created by the Cyber-Safety Act. As disturbing as it is, its contents is, if anything, even more troubling from a constitutional standpoint. Somewhat curiously, Justice McDougall does not have all that much to say about the scope and effect of the Cyber-Safety Act, which he addresses under the headings of minimal impairment and balancing between the Act’s positive and negative effects. What he does say, however, is damning indeed: the definition of cyberbullying, in particular, he finds to be “a colossal failure,” [165] catching “many types of expression that go to the core of freedom of expression values.” [175] That is true, but the point might bear some elaboration.

Take another look at the statutory definition of cyberbullying. It

means any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and electronic mail, typically repeated or with continuing effect, that is intended or ought reasonably [to] be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes assisting or encouraging such communication in any way. (Par. 3(1)(b); brackets apparently in the original.)

Think about it. Any communication using computers or cell phones that “ought reasonably to be expected to cause … damage to another person’s … emotional well-being” ― anything that a reasonable person ought to know will make anyone else, anyone at all (since the statute does not in any way restrict who the “other person” whose well-being mustn’t be harmed), upset or feel bad counts as cyberbullying and is liable to be censored. As Eugene Volokh points out in an important article (as well as a bunch of posts on the Volokh Conspiracy) that the defenders of ant-cyberbullying legislation would do well to read, sometimes telling things that will have that effect on people is necessary to explain your own feelings or actions:

[i]f you want to explain to your friends why you’re depressed, or why you’ve broken up with someone, or why you’re moving out of town or taking another job, you might need to tell them about your husband’s cheating, your ex-boyfriend’s sexually transmitted disease, your ex-girlfriend’s impending bankruptcy, or even your mother’s dementia. (761-62)

Sometimes, indeed, you even want to make people feel bad, and with good reason:

speech remains valuable to public debate even when the speaker is motivated by hostility. Often much of the most useful criticism of a person comes from people who have good reason to wish that person ill—if you are mistreated by a politician, religious leader, businessperson, or lawyer, you might acquire both useful information about the person’s faults and resentment towards that person. (774)

And of course, quite apart from any contribution to the public debate, being able to tell why you are aggrieved at someone is important to self-expression. It is often said that people should not have to suffer in silence. But under the Cyber-Safety Act, they are likely to have to do so, since it may well be impossible to explain their emotions in ways that will not hurt the feelings or injure the reputation of the person they blame ― correctly or otherwise ― for their suffering.

Justice McDougall hints at these issues when points at the absence of defences such as truth in the Cyber-Safety Act, and notes that it applies to private and public communications alike. However, I think that it is important to explain in more detail, and with examples, why the extremely broad definition of cyberbullying in this legislation is so problematic. Moreover, even adding the defences of truth absence of ill-will would be enough to remedy the problem. The former is inapplicable to statements of opinion. The latter is insufficient for the reasons explained by prof. Volokh.

Beyond its (very real) unfairness and procedural defects, the fundamental problem with the Cyber-Safety Act is that it seeks to censor communications which the law has never regarded ― and, indeed, still does not regard ― as wrongs, whether civil or criminal. A statement need not be defamatory or otherwise tortious, much less amount to hate speech or be otherwise criminal, to fall within the definition of cyberbullying. The legislature, presumably, thought that this is not a problem so long as it was not imposing a penalty for the making statements considered to be cyberbullying. Whether the requirements that can imposed as part of a “protection order” issued pursuant to the Cyber-Safety Act, which can include not only prospective and retroactive censorship, but also a ban on using certain devices or online services really are not penalties is questionable in my mind, but let’s put that to one side for now. Even if the legislature is right that “protection orders” can be fairly characterized as preventive rather than punitive in nature, what exactly is it that gives it a right to prevent people from doing things that in its own view are not actually wrong? The legislature itself is acting like a bully, albeit a well-intentioned one. It’s a good thing that Justice McDougall silenced it.

One thought on “Silencing the Bullies

  1. Pingback: How to Get It Right on Wrongs | Double Aspect

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