HALIFAX – A unique law will be tested in a Nova Scotia courtroom for the first time when government lawyers argue later this month someone accused of making online threats should be ordered to stop the alleged cyberbullying.
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Attorneys for the province’s Justice Department will present the case in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax on Feb. 11 under the Cyber-safety Act, one-of-a-kind legislation aimed at addressing the rising number of cyberbullying claims.
Roger Merrick, director of public safety, says the case is an important test of the law and is being closely watched by other provinces interested in coming up with ways to shut down and prevent online harassment.
“It’s a milestone for us,” he said in an interview. “I think it’s very important for us to do this, obviously for the protection of the complainant in this case and we’ll see how it proceeds.”
The case centres on allegations by Andrea Paul, the chief of the Pictou Landing First Nation, who says Christopher George Prosper was posting negative and threatening comments about her and her family on several Facebook sites.
According to an affidavit from Dana Bowden, an officer with Nova Scotia’s CyberSCAN unit, Prosper called Paul a “crook, backstabbing bch, two-faced to our elders. Your fake smile needs a punch in the face ....”
Paul contacted the CyberSCAN unit, the first of its kind in the country to be tasked with investigating all complaints of cyberbullying in the province. Bowden met with Prosper and told him he was being investigated. Bowden says in her affidavit that Prosper admitted to creating a Facebook page about the chief, but agreed to delete it and avoid communication with Paul.
In her affidavit, Paul says she has known Prosper for much of his life and alleges that he resumed posting negative comments about her on his Facebook page.
"This whole ordeal has been a nightmare and I have felt powerless about how to deal with him,” she said in her affidavit.
Paul would not comment on the case, while Prosper could not be reached for comment. She is seeking a prevention order against him, which says he should remove all messages about her deemed to be cyberbullying, not contact her and refrain from cyberbullying. None of the allegations in the case has been proven in court.
Wayne MacKay, a cyberbullying expert and law professor at Dalhousie University, said the new law fills a void by allowing people to try to resolve these kinds of cases in civil proceedings. MacKay says the language of the act and the breadth of the prevention order apply the same logic used in domestic violence cases where restraining orders are imposed.
“It is important because you’re kind of blazing new territory and I think it will be interesting to see how it is applied in this kind of case,” he said. “It is applying preventive measures and that’s quite important.”
He will be watching too to see if anyone challenges the law on constitutional grounds. The law was passed after the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, who was taken off life-support last April after a suicide attempt. Her family says the 17-year-old was subjected to months of bullying after a digital photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted in November 2011 was passed around her school. Complaints are usually handled in an informal process, which involves talking to the accused about the allegations. Critics have suggested these informal calls, which can include requests to delete material, could be seen as a form of intimidation that infringes on freedom of speech. If informal methods fail, the unit can issue court orders to confiscate computers, cellphones and other mobile devices. Those who disobey the orders can be fined up to $5,000 and face a jail sentence of up to six months.
Complainants also have the option of going directly to a justice of the peace to seek a protection order. Two cases have been settled that way. The unit has received 93 complaints since the end of September, with just over half still active while the remainder were either informally resolved, handed over to police or didn’t require further action.