As I blogged yesterday, the Nova Scotia provincial government has tabled a bill in the provincial legislature to address cyberbullying. The Bill, dubbed the Cyber-safety Act, does a number of notable things. Notably, it is not limited to protecting minors from cyberbullying and is equally available to adult and child victims.
It must be borne in mind that the Bill has only just been tabled, so it may be amended as it works its way though the legislature and its committees.
It the Bill, cyberbullying is defined:
(b) "cyberbullying" 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 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;
Interestingly, the Bill deems some parents to be cyberbullies themselves if they don't do enough to prevent their minor children from engaging in cyberbullying:
(2) For the purpose of this Act, w here a person who is a minor engages in an activity that is cyberbullying and a parent of the person
(a) knows of the activity;
(b) knows or ought reasonably to expect the activity to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person's health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation; and
(c) fails to take steps to prevent the activity from continuing,
the parent engages in cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying Protection Orders
First of all, the Bill creates "cyberbullying protection orders", which are orders issued by the courts to require an individual to cease activities that will be prescribed in the order. The order can be broad or narrow, and the bill gives the courts wide latitude:
9 (1) A protection order may include any of the following provisions that the justice considers necessary or advisable for the protection of the subject:
(a) a provision prohibiting the respondent from engaging in cyberbullying;
(b) a provision restricting or prohibiting the respondent from, directly or indirectly, communicating with or contacting the subject or a specified person;
(c) a provision restricting or prohibiting the respondent from, directly or indirectly, communicating about the subject or a specified person;
(d) a provision prohibiting or restricting the respondent from using a specified or any means of electronic communication;
(e) an order confiscating, for a specified period or permanently, any electronic device capable of connecting to an Internet Protocol address associated with the respondent or used by the respondent for cyberbullying;
(f) an order requiring the respondent to discontinue receiving service from an Internet service provider;
(g) any other provision that the justice considers necessary or advisable for the protection of the subject.
One thing that I find very interesting -- and disappointing -- is that if the victim is a minor, he or she cannot seek such an order him or herself. His or her parents have to seek the order on their behalf. One would think that at least older teenagers should be able to help themselves, even if their parents don't want to get involved.
A new tort of cyberbullying
Next, the Bill creates a brand-new tort of cyberbullying, which gives a victim of cyberbullying the right to sue in the civil courts for damages. This part is pretty short on details, so I expect the provincial government is leaving it to the courts to sort out.
21 A person who subjects another person to cyberbullying commits a tort against that person.
22 (1) In an action for cyberbullying, the Court may
(a) award damages to the plaintiff, including general, special, aggravated and punitive damages;
(b) issue an injunction on such terms and with such conditions as the Court determines appropriate in the circumstances; and
(c) make any other order that the Court considers just and reasonable in the circumstances.
(2) In awarding damages in an action for cyberbullying, the Court shall have regard to all of the circumstances of the case, including
(a) any particular vulnerabilities of the plaintiff;
(b) all aspects of the conduct of the defendant; and
(c) the nature of any existing relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant.
In addition, the Bill makes the parents of a minor cyberbully jointly and severally liable for all the damages unless the parents are able to show due diligence. It is understandable that the government would include this provision, since young cyberbullies likely do not have any assets of their own (making a civil lawsuit futile) and to perhaps dip into the homeowners or renters insurance policies that parents may have.
(3) Where the defendant is a minor, a parent of the defendant is jointly and severally liable for any damages awarded to the plaintiff unless the parent satisfies the Court that the parent was exercising reasonable supervision over the defendant at the time the defendant engaged in the activity that caused the loss or damage and made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the defendant from engaging in the kind of activity that resulted in the loss or damage.
(4) For the purpose of subsection (3), in determining whether a parent exercised reasonable supervision over the defendant at the time the defendant engaged in the activity that caused the loss or damage or made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the defendant from engaging in the kind of activity that resulted in the loss or damage, the Court may consider
(a) the age of the defendant;
(b) the prior conduct of the defendant;
(c) the physical and mental capacity of the defendant;
(d) any psychological or other medical disorders of the defendant;
(e) whether the defendant used an electronic device supplied by the parent, for the activity;
(f) any conditions imposed by the parent on the use by the defendant of an electronic device;
(g) whether the defendant was under the direct supervision of the parent at the time when the defendant engaged in the activity;
(h) in the event that the defendant was not under the direct supervision of the parent at the time at the time when the defendant engaged in the activity, whether the parent acted unreasonably in failing to make reasonable arrangements for the supervision of the defendant; and
(i) any other matter that the Court considers relevant.
The tort of cyberbullying would be in addition to any other causes of action that might be brought to bear, including defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Powers given to the Director of Public Safety
The provincial government has promised, as part of this legislation, to create a specialized unit to combat cyberbullying. This is being done as amendments to the existing Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act. This Act has generally been used to deal with crackhouses and the like, but an additional part allows for the designation of "Directors of Public Safety" who will have particular powers to investigate and respond to cyberbullying. (To show how this Act is amended by the bill, I've created a Google doc that shows the proposed changes.)
The Director is given the power to investigate cyberbullying and can seek the assistance of the courts to unmask anonymous miscreants. Once identified, the Director can make an application to the court for a cyberbullying prevention order. The prevention orders are very similar to the protection orders outlined above (I'm not sure why it is duplicated in the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act and the Cyber-safety Act).
It is an offense to defy such an order when issued.
Amendments to the Education Act
The Bill also proposes amendments to the existing Education Act. First of all, it adds the promotion and encouragement of safe and respectful electronic communications to the mandate of the school system. But more importantly, it gives school principals explicit jurisdiction over outside of school activities that are disruptive to the school environment:
122 Where a student enrolled in a public school engages in
(a) disruptive behaviour or severely disruptive behaviour on school grounds, on property immediately adjacent to school grounds, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, function or program whether on or off school grounds, at a school bus stop or on a school bus; or
(b) severely disruptive behaviour at a location, activity, function or program that is off school grounds and is not school-sponsored or school-related, if the behaviour significantly disrupts the learning climate of the school,
the principal, or the person in charge of the school, may take appropriate action as specified in the Provincial school code of conduct policy including suspending the student for a period of not more than five school days.
My overall impression
Overall, I think this legislation is an important step. Up until this Bill was tabled, most of the discussion of the issue recently has focused on possible amendments to the Criminal Code. Based on what I've seen reported about the Rehtaeh Parsons case points to a serious failing on the part of the criminal justice system (and the mental health system), not the criminal law. But in any event, the phenomenon of cyberbullying is a very complicated one, and one that cannot be fixed or even properly addressed by the criminal law alone. This bill specifically puts a degree of responsibility in the school system and provides the means to establish a group of specialists who have appropriate tools to investigate and respond to cyberbullying. Finally, it gives victims and their parents the ability to proceed through the civil justice system for the harm of cyberbullying. Of course, much depends on how this is implemented and I'm sure many here in Nova Scotia will be paying close attention to that.