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.

Anti-Bullying Law Struck Down

Last week, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia struck down the province’s recently-enacted anti-cyber-bullying legislation, the Cyber-Safety Act. In Crouch v. Snell, 2015 NSSC 340, Justice McDougall holds that the Act both infringed the freedom of expression protected by s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and made possible deprivations of liberty inconsistent with the principles of fundamental justice, contrary to s. 7 of the Charter. In this post, I summarize Justice McDougall’s reasons. (At great length, I am afraid, partly because it is important to explain the somewhat complicated legislation at issue, and mostly because the opinion covers a lot of constitutional ground.) I will comment separately.

Although laws against cyber-bullying are often justified by the need to protect young persons (especially children) from attacks and harassment by their peers, the parties in Crouch were adults, former partners in a technology start up who had had a falling out. Mr. Crouch alleged that “Mr. Snell began a ‘smear campaign’ against him on social media.” [22] Mr. Crouch eventually responded by applying for a “protection order” under the Cyber-Safety Act.

The Act, whose stated “purpose … is to provide safer communities by creating administrative and court processes that can be used to address and prevent cyberbullying,” (s. 2) makes it possible for persons who consider that they are being the victims of cyber-bullying (or for their parents and police officers, if they are minors) to apply for an order that can include prohibitions against its target communicating with or about the applicant, or using specified electronic services or devices. The Act defines cyberbullying as

any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social net works, 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 includ[ing] assisting or encouraging such communication in any way. (Par. 3(1)(b))

While some earlier cases read this definition as including requirement of malice into this definition, Justice McDougall considers that it included not only actions that had a “culpable intent” but also “conduct where harm was not intended, but ought reasonably to have been expected.”[80]

The applications are made “without notice to the respondent.” (Subs. 5(1)) If “the justice determines, on a balance of probabilities, that … the respondent engaged in cyberbullying of the subject; and … there are reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent will engage in cyberbullying of the subject in the future,” (s. 8) he or she can issue a “protection order.” Once an order is granted by the justice of the peace, it must be served on its target. A copy is forwarded to the Supreme Court, where a judge must review the order and confirm it (with or without amendment) if he or she “is satisfied that there was sufficient evidence … to support the making of the order.” (Subs. 12(2)) If the judge is not so satisfied, he or she must “direct a hearing of the matter in whole or in part,” (Subs. 12(3)) at which point the target of the order as well as the applicant are notified and can be heard.

Mr. Crouch’s application resulted in a protection order being granted by a justice of the peace. Reviewing it, Justice McDougall finds that some of Mr. Crouch’s allegations were unsupported by any evidence; indeed, in applying for the protection order, Mr. Crouch misrepresented a perfectly innocent statement made by Mr. Snell as a threat by taking it out of the context in which it had been made. Nevertheless, there was enough evidence supporting Mr. Crouch’s complaint for Justice McDougall to confirm, in somewhat revised form, the protection order that prohibited Mr. Snell “from directly or indirectly communicating with” or “about” Mr. Crouch, [23] and ordering him to remove any social media postings that referred to Mr. Crouch explicitly or “that might reasonably lead one to conclude that they refer to” him. [73] This confirmation was subject to a ruling on the Cyber-Safety Act‘s constitutionality, which Mr. Snell challenged.

His first argument was that the Act infringed his freedom of expression. Remarkably, the government was not content to argue that the infringement was justified under s. 1 of the Charter, and actually claimed that there was no infringement at all, “because communications that come within the definition of ‘cyberbullying’ are, due to their malicious and hurtful nature, low-value communications that do not accord with the values sought to be protected under s. 2(b).” [101] Justice McDougall rejects this argument, since the Supreme Court has consistently held that “[t]he only type of expression that receives no Charter protection is violent expression.” [102] In finding that both the purpose and the effect of the Act infringed freedom of expression, Justice McDougall cites Justice Moir’s comments in Self v. Baha’i, 2015 NSSC 94, at par. 25 :

[a] neighbour who calls to warn that smoke is coming from your upstairs windows causes fear. A lawyer who sends a demand letter by fax or e-mail causes intimidation. I expect Bob Dylan caused humiliation to P.F. Sloan when he released “Positively 4th Street”, just as a local on-line newspaper causes humiliation when it reports that someone has been charged with a vile offence. Each is a cyberbully, according to the literal meaning of the definitions, no matter the good intentions of the neighbour, the just demand of the lawyer, or the truthfulness of Mr. Dylan or the newspaper.

(Self was the case where the judge read a requirement of malice into the definition of cyber-bullying. There had, however, been no constitutional challenge to the Cyber-Safety Act there. Incidentally, Self also arose from a business dispute.)

The more difficult issue, as usual in freedom of expression cases, is whether the infringement is a “reasonable limit[] prescribed by law that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” as section 1 of the Charter requires. In the opinion of Justice McDougall, the Cyber-Safety Act fails not only the Oakes test for justifying restrictions on rights, but also the requirement that such restrictions be “prescribed by law.”

Mr. Snell argued that the definition of cyber-bullying in the Cyber-Safety Act was too vague to count as “prescribed by law.” Justice McDougall considers that the definition “is sufficiently clear to delineate a risk zone. It provides an intelligible standard” [129] for legal debate. However, in his view, the same cannot be said of the requirement in section 8 of the Act that there be “reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent will engage in cyberbullying of the subject in the future.” Justice McDougall finds that “[t]he Act provides no guidance on what kinds of evidence and considerations might be relevant here [and thus] no standard so as to avoid arbitrary decision-making.” [130] While risk of re-offending is assessed in criminal sentencing decisions, this is done on the basis of evidence, rather than on an ex-parte application that may include only limited evidence of past, and no indication of future, conduct. Here, “[t]he Legislature has given a plenary discretion to do whatever seems best in a wide set of circumstances,” which is likely to result in “arbitrary and discriminatory applications.” [137]

Although this should be enough to dispose of the case, Justice McDougall nevertheless goes on to put the Cyber-Safety Act to the Oakes test. He concludes

that the objectives of the Act—to create efficient and cost-effective administrative and court processes to address cyberbullying, in order to protect Nova Scotians from undue harm to their reputation and their mental well-being—is [sic] pressing and substantial. [147]

However, he finds that the ex-parte nature of the process created by the Cyber-Safety Act is not rationally connected to these objectives. While proceeding without notice to the respondent may be necessary when the applicant does not know who is cyber-bullying him or her, or in emergencies, the Act requires applications to be ex-parte in every case. It thus “does not specifically address a targeted mischief.” [158]

Nor is the Act, in Justice McDougall’s view, minimally impairing of the freedom of expression. Indeed, he deems “the Cyber-safety Act, and the definition of cyberbullying in particular, … a colossal failure” in that it “unnecessarily catches material that has little or nothing to do with the prevention of cyberbullying.” [165] It applies to “both private and public communications,” [165] provides no defences ― not even truth or absence of ill-will ―, and does not require “proof of harm.” [165]

Finally, Justice McDougall is of the opinion that the positive effects of the Cyber-Safety Act ― of which there is no evidence but whose existence he seems willing to “presume[]” [173] ― do not outweigh the deleterious ones. Once again, the scope of the definition of cyber-bullying is the issue: “[i]t is clear that many types of expression that go to the core of freedom of expression values might be caught” [175] by the statute.

In addition to the argument based on freedom of expression, Mr. Snell raised the issue of s. 7 of the Charter, and Justice McDougall addresses it too. The Cyber-Safety Act engages the liberty interest because the penalties for not complying with a “protection order” can include imprisonment. In Justice McDougall’s view, this potential interference with liberty is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice ― quite a few of them, actually. The ex-parte nature of the process the Act sets up is arbitrary, since as Justice McDougall already found, it lacks a rational connection with its objective. The statutory definition of cyber-bullying is overbroad, for the same reason it is not minimally impairing of the freedom of expression. The “requirement that the respondent be deemed likely to engage in cyberbullying in the future is incredibly vague.” [197] Moreover, “the protection order procedure set out in the Cyber-safety Act is not procedurally fair,” due mostly to “the failure to provide a respondent whose identity is known or easily ascertainable with notice of and the opportunity to participate in the initial protection order hearing.” [203] Finally, Justice McDougall adopts Justice Wilson’s suggestion in R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30, that a deprivation of a s. 7 right that is also an infringement of another Charter right is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The Cyber-Safety Act infringes the freedom of expression, which “weighs heavily against a finding that the impugned law accords with the principles of fundamental justice.” [204] As with the infringement of the freedom expression, that of s. 7 is not justified under section 1 of the Charter.

As a result, Justice McDougall declares the Cyber-Safety Act unconstitutional. The statutory scheme is too dependent on the over-inclusive definition of cyber-bullying for alternatives such as reading in or severing some provisions to be workable. The declaration of unconstitutionality is to take effect immediately, because “[t]o temporarily suspend [it] would be to condone further infringements of Charter-protected rights and freedoms.” [220] Besides, the victims of cyber-bullying still “have the usual—albeit imperfect—civil and criminal avenues available to them.” [220]

I believe that this is the right outcome. However, Justice McDougall’s reasons are not altogether satisfactory. More on that soon.