A unique Nova Scotia law aimed at stopping online harassment received its first test in court Tuesday when a judge imposed a cyberbullying prevention order on a man accused of using Facebook to threaten the chief of a native band.
The case involves allegations made by Andrea Paul, chief of Pictou Landing First Nation, who complained in court documents that local resident Christopher George Prosper had used the social networking site to post abusive, obscene and defamatory comments about her and her family.
In an affidavit, Paul said the Internet bullying started last summer and got worse in the fall when she blocked Prosper’s posts and messages.
According to another affidavit, Prosper called Paul a “crook, back-stabbing b**ch, two-faced to our elders. Your fake smile needs a punch in the face....”
Paul said she feared for her safety and turned to police in November. That’s when she learned of the new CyberSCAN unit, which is the first of its kind in Canada to be tasked with investigating complaints of cyberbullying.
The unit, overseen by the province’s director of public safety, dispatched an investigator to ask Prosper to remove his posts and stop what the unit deemed cyberbullying.
At the time, Prosper said he would comply, said Angela Jones, a lawyer representing the province’s Justice Department.
However, the electronic taunts and threats resumed only two weeks later, court heard. As well, Paul’s teenaged daughters started receiving electronic messages from Prosper, which Jones described as “negative.”
Jones said Paul felt confused, humiliated and betrayed by Prosper, who Paul once considered a long-time friend.
That’s when the director of public safety, Roger Merrick, applied to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court for a cyberbullying prevention order.
The province’s Cyber-safety Act defines cyberbullying as any electronic communication “that is intended or ought reasonably 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.”
In court, Judge Heather Robertson said the new law gives broad powers to the court.
“It’s pretty far-reaching,” she said, echoing concerns raised by some critics. “This is new territory.”
However, Robertson was quick to conclude that Prosper’s actions constituted cyberbullying under the act, saying he hurt Paul’s reputation and psychological well-being.
“He made very defamatory, abusive and obscene posts related to Chief Paul and her family,” the judge said. “I am certainly satisfied that this meets the test for cyberbullying.”
Robertson imposed a one-year court order that requires Prosper to remove all messages deemed to be cyberbullying, refrain from contacting Paul and stop cyberbullying. Prosper was also ordered to pay $750 in court costs.
Prosper, who now lives in Ottawa, was not in court and did not have legal counsel representing him at Tuesday’s hearing. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Outside court, Paul said she was pleased with the judge’s decision.
“I was really nervous about being the first case,” she said. “You want to make sure that your case is strong. It’s important for youth and adults to know there is a law to protect you and you don’t have to deal with this.”
Merrick said the unit has the option of seeking orders to confiscate computers, cellphones and other mobile devices. Those who violate court orders like the one issued Tuesday can be fined up to $5,000 and face a jail sentence of up to six months.
He dismissed critics who have said the law could make it more difficult to publicly criticize public figures like Paul, who was seeking re-election last year.
“I don’t believe that it was politically motivated,” Merrick said, referring to Prosper’s posts. “I believe it was an attack personally on [Paul] and her family.”
The cyberbullying law was drafted after the death 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, much of it online, after a digital photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted in November, 2011, was passed around her school.