Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ontario Court of Appeal confirms online harassment conviction where threatening website was “about” the complainant but not a threat directed "to" the complainant

At a time when the courts and the rest of the justice system are grappling with how traditional Criminal Code offences and online misconduct intersect, the Ontario Court of Appeal has issued an important decision in R v. Sim on how criminal harassment can take place online. Often, police and others are stuck in an analog paradigm of traditional stalking and menacing.

In this case, the accused created an incredibly offensive website that was not directed at the complainant but was about her, and directed to a select audience that appears to have been intended to exclude her.

The accused used to work in the same building as the complainant lived. They became friends and when the accused showed a romantic interest in the complainant, the complainant made it clear that the feelings were not reciprocated. They went their separate ways, each married other people and started families. They communicated by email from time to time, apparently just to catch up on what the other was doing.

In the meantime, the accused created a Yahoo! Groups website that, according to a statement on the homepage, was dedicated to “the degradation and online spreading” of the complainant. He recruited at least 150 others to join the site. According to the Court:

[9] Sim posted extensive biographical details and photos of the complainant on the website. He authored false, degrading, vile, and grotesque sexualized commentary about her on the website’s messaging forum. He encouraged group members to post their own vile comments about the complainant, to author and share crude sexual fantasies involving her, and to alter photographs of her in a sexually degrading way and share those as well. …

The complainant became aware of the site in 2013 and, with the help of a friend, she created a username and password to get full access to the site.

The accused was charged with criminal harassment and publishing a defamatory libel. He was convicted of harassment and acquitted of defamatory libel. The accused appealed his conviction to the Ontario Court of Appeal, arguing that the necessary actus rea of harassment had been made out.

The accused had been convicted under paragraph 2(d) of section 264 of the Criminal Code:

(1) Criminal harassment – No person shall, without lawful authority and knowing that another person is harassed or recklessly as to whether the other person is harassed, engage in conduct referred to in subsection (2) that causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them.

(2) Prohibited conduct – The conduct mentioned in subsection (1) consists of …

(d) engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or any member of their family.

The trial judge acknowledged that if “threatening conduct” required a subjective intention to threaten the complainant, the accused should be acquitted for lack of evidence. But the judge decided that there was no such requirement; rather the question is whether the conduct is objectively threatening.

In 2008, the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Burns determined that an objective standard was required for the actus rea of criminal harassment under paragraph 2(d):

To establish harassment under s. 264(2)(d) of the Criminal Code, the Crown had to establish that the appellant engaged in “threatening conduct”. We accept the definition of threatening conduct given in R. v. George at para. 39 that, in order to meet the objectives of s. 264, the threatening conduct must amount to a “tool of intimidation which is designed to instill a sense of fear in the recipient”. The impugned conduct is to be viewed objectively, with due consideration for the circumstances in which they took place, and with regards to the effects those acts had on the recipient. [Citation omitted.]

With regard to the accused’s specific arguments, Laskin JA, on behalf of a unanimous Court, wrote:

[18] First, Sim’s submission is inconsistent with s. 264(1) of the Code and thus is contrary to Parliament’s express intent. Subsection 264(1) specifies that the mens rea component of criminal harassment can be met by an accused’s knowledge or recklessness. To suggest that the actus reus of threatening conduct requires a specific intent to instil fear is contrary to the plain language of s. 264(1).

[19] Second, as this court said in Burns, under s. 264(2)(d) the conduct in question must be viewed objectively. In other words, would the accused’s threatening conduct cause a reasonable person in the complainant’s situation to fear for her safety? The word “designed” does not require the Crown to prove the accused’s subjective intention. And, in assessing whether an accused’s conduct is threatening under s. 264(2)(d), a judge is not required to get into the accused’s mind.

[20] Instead, the word “designed” is meant to focus on the effect of the accused’s conduct on a reasonable person in the shoes of the target of the conduct. In Burns, this court clarified that the objective assessment must consider the circumstances in which the conduct took place, and the effects that the conduct actually had on the complainant. Although an accused's threatening conduct may not affect every target of that conduct, in every conceivable situation, it could well instill fear in a reasonable person in the complainant’s specific situation, particularly when the actual effects of the conduct on the complaint are considered. That is the case here. The trial judge did not err in finding that the Crown had established the actus reus of the offence.

While the site at issue was clearly about the complainant, there was no evidence that it was directed at the complainant in order to threaten her. This decision will hopefully reinforce the notion that the criminal harassment offence may be made out in cases where the accused creates “threatening” content about the victim, rather than directed to the victim.

[An earlier version of this case summary was written for the Canadian Technology Law Association’s newsletter.]

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