A new Nova Scotia law enacted to counteract cyberbullying may create more problems than it’s able to solve, says Toronto criminal lawyer Sam Goldstein.
The legislation, which recently came into effect, was introduced less than a month after the April 7 death of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old from Cole Harbour who was said to have endured harassment and humiliation after a photo of her being sexually assaulted was circulated around her school and online, the CBC report says.
Goldstein says, “cyberbullying is not a unique phenomenon,” and he points to existing laws against child pornography, criminal harassment, uttering threats, and defamation as ways to address the issue.
Part of the act that appears unnecessary, he says, deals with action to be taken by teachers and principals if a student is disruptive.
“We don’t need to create a cyberbullying law to give principals powers to discipline children,” says Goldstein.
It will be difficult, says Goldstein, to determine where a schoolyard spat ends and illegal behaviour begins.
“When you look at the definition of cyberbullying, it’s anything that causes harm to a kid’s emotional well being or self esteem,” he says. “This law has created a very expansive category that will likely include behaviour which is simply outside the mischief we’re trying to address. There’s gradations of bullying. Sometimes it’s just kids getting angry with each other and arguing, and then there’s serious bullying.”
Goldstein says while the online aspect has changed, name-calling, especially among girls, is nothing new.
“Now that we have the Internet, it’s just those old levels of behaviour have been taken to a new medium, but the same laws that protected us before still protect us within a new medium,” he says.
“It’s often said that the Internet is a virtual Wild West and the laws don’t apply, but it’s simply not true. Criminal laws and civil laws have always applied online. In the last decade and a half, courts have dealt with new situations and applied the laws.”
Goldstein says a better approach may have been to amend the law regarding harassing telephone calls to include digital communications.
While the Parsons case is tragic, Goldstein says, a new law is not likely to prevent similar circumstances in the future.
“The more we look to the state to solve our problems, the more we’re giving up, and the more we’re causing problems for ourselves,” he says.