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Cyber-Safety Act could undermine free expression in Canadian province

The following is a PEN Canada blog post by Marq de Villiers, a member of PEN Canada's National Affairs Committee and a veteran journalist and author.

Nova Scotia's problematic Cyber-Safety Act

Good legislation seldom comes in the heat of emotion, in the high passion surrounding some public, and often tragic, event. PEN's National Affairs Committee believes that Nova Scotia's new cyber-bullying law (the Cyber-Safety Act) is a case in point. Introduced in reaction to the suicide of a teenager, it is well-meaning, comes with the best of intentions, is politically and publicly popular, but is nevertheless over-reaching, and carries with it a worrying threat to free expression.

The legislation is a reaction to the distressing case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old who hanged herself after a long battle with suicidal thoughts, and after more than two years of harassment on social media, during which time her schoolmates passed around a sexually explicit photograph of her, taken during a drunken teenage party. The photo circulated around the town and her school, apparently without a second thought or any sign of remorse, in multiple acts of social cruelty, unmonitored by any adult. Her schoolmates called her a slut, her friends snubbed her, and boys routinely demanded sex from her. Her schools, more than one of them by the end, inexplicably did nothing. She was, as her father so poignantly put it, disappointed to death.

The government of Darrell Dexter was therefore reacting to a wave of public revulsion in introducing this law. The entirely laudable aim? “To ensure that all Nova Scotians have a place to turn when they experience, or are aware of, cyber-bullying.” The law professor who headed the task force that led to the legislation believes the new law could have made a difference in the Parsons case, and has subsequently urged other provinces to follow Nova Scotia's lead.

Read in one way, the Act is innocuous enough—it is just putting a stop to egregious cruelty. Read in a more critical way, problems emerge.

Read the full story on PEN Canada's website.

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