Nova Scotia has taken such an aggressive, no-holds-barred stand against cyberbullying, it could begin to change the social climate around this sometimes devastating form of cruelty. Anyone tempted to engage in malicious online behaviour would be made aware that they will be held accountable.
But the proposed Cyber-safety Act has draconian search-and-seizure elements with major implications for freedom of speech – accused bullies would in effect be silenced by the state. The government could obtain ex parte court orders against alleged bullies, and a five-member investigative squad would have the power (again without notice to the alleged bullies) to enter homes and remove computers and cellphones. Investigators could obtain records of everything an individual has done on the Internet. They could obtain all texts that a purported bully sent and received.
It's tough stuff. The act would impose liability on the parents of children accused of engaging in cyberbullying. Are parents to be required to spy on their children, to pore over their cellphone texts, to peer at every message sent on Facebook?
Provincial legislators who were deeply saddened and distressed by the death this spring of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Cole Harbour after photos of an alleged sexual assault were posted online no doubt wish to deliver a strong blow against cyberbullying. Online bullying has a destructive power that no one should underestimate, and the Criminal Code's many tools, including anti-harassment provisions, have for some reason barely been used to combat this form of bullying.
But Nova Scotia lawmakers should ask themselves some tough questions as they head down a very new road in Canadian law. Perhaps they believe that only the most extreme cases would be taken up. The proposed law is, however, incredibly broad. Cyberbullying is defined as any electronic communication intended to, or that could reasonably have been 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 it applies to bullying of adults, too.
Will fair comment be protected? What about satire of public figures such as the famous and legally acceptable editorial cartoon of premier William Vander Zalm pulling the wings off a fly? Would an animal-rights group be able to campaign against the owner of a factory farm, or anti-abortionists against an abortion provider?
Is it worth the risks to free speech to create a new, intrusive (and expensive) state bureaucracy? Do adults need the same protection from cyberbullies as minors, or as young people up to, say, 25? Is there enough accountability for the actions of this proposed new arm of the state?
Laudable as the goal is, the legislation as written goes too far.