When a 15-year-old girl is victimized by grotesque cyberbullying, and attempts to learn, through court action, the identity of the bully who defamed her, it is fair and just for her to remain anonymous, as a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Thursday.
Several media organizations and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, intervening in the case, argued otherwise. They said the Nova Scotia girl should have to prove that she would be harmed if her name were published. They worry about the precedent – that in another courtroom somewhere, someone else will come forward to ask for a publication ban without having to demonstrate harm. But let’s face it, in the cyberbullying of minors, the potential for extreme harm is obvious. Is there anyone in Canada who couldn’t explain it in a sentence or two?
Someone set out to destroy this girl. That bully created a fake Facebook profile with the girl’s picture, identifying information, insults about her appearance and sexually explicit references. Shouldn’t the girl have the right to defend her name without exposing herself to further humiliation? (To sue for libel, her family needed the Internet provider to turn over the bully’s name; the provider said it would do so if ordered to by a court.) If she had to make her identity known, she wouldn’t go to court at all; the open court would be of little use to her.
Or should she have to make an intimate psychological report of harm, to be combed over by adults unknown to her, and then ask for a publication ban on that report so those details don’t become a part of the court’s public record? Again, the potential for harm is obvious.
This newspaper stands strongly behind the principle of open courts, and we don’t want that important principle chipped away at. We don’t agree with the Supreme Court that identity is “minimal” or a “sliver of information” – anonymity can protect the powerful from accountability.
But there are some common-sense exceptions such as in sexual assault cases, in which a 1988 Supreme Court ruling (upholding the protection of victims’ anonymity, challenged by Canadian newspapers), formed the legal foundation for today’s cyberbullying victim’s claim to shield her identity. As new forms of media are developed, new exceptions may occasionally be needed to protect against new forms of victimization of vulnerable minors.