Cyberbullying and Plaintiff Anonymity Discussed by the Supreme Court of Canada

Occasionally Canadian Courts make exceptions to the open court principle and allow litigants to sue under a pseudonym and further place publication bans in place.  Reasons for judgement were released today by the Supreme Court of Canada grappling with these issues in the context of a ‘cyberbullying‘ lawsuit involving an infant plaintiff.
In today’s decision (AB v. Bragg Communications Inc.) the Plaintiff, a 15 year old girl, found someone ” had posted a Facebook profile using her picture, a slightly modified version of her name, and other particulars identifying her.  Accompanying the picture was some unflattering commentary about the girl’s appearance along with sexually explicit references.”.  She commenced legal proceedings seeking to uncover the identity of the person who posted this.  She further sought to do so anonymously and asked for the protection of a publication ban.  In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court of Canada held that Plaintiff anonymity was appropriate in these circumstances but that a publication ban beyond information which could identify the Plaintiff was not warranted.  Justice Abella provided the following reasons:
[25]                          In the context of sexual assault, this Court has already recognized that protecting a victim’s privacy encourages reporting: Canadian Newspapers Co. v. Canada (Attorney General), [1988] 2 S.C.R. 122.  It does not take much of an analytical leap to conclude that the likelihood of a child protecting himself or herself from bullying will be greatly enhanced if the protection can be sought anonymously.  As the Kids Help Phone factum constructively notes (at para. 16), protecting children’s anonymity could help ensure that they will seek therapeutic assistance and other remedies, including legal remedies where appropriate.  In particular, “[w]hile media publicity is likely to have a negative effect on all victims, there is evidence to be particularly concerned about child victims. . . . Child victims need to be able to trust that their privacy will be protected as much as possible by those whom they have turned to for help”: Lisa M. Jones, David Finkelhor and Jessica Beckwith, “Protecting victims’ identities in press coverage of child victimization” (2010), 11Journalism 347, at pp. 349-50.
[26]                          Studies have confirmed that allowing the names of child victims and other identifying information to appear in the media can exacerbate trauma, complicate recovery, discourage future disclosures, and inhibit cooperation with authorities.  (See e.g., UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Child Safety Online: Global challenges and strategies (2011), at pp. 15–16; and R. v. D.H., 2002 BCPC 464 (Can LII), at para. 8).
[27]                          If we value the right of children to protect themselves from bullying, cyber or otherwise, if common sense and the evidence persuade us that young victims of sexualized bullying are particularly vulnerable to the harms of revictimization upon publication, and if we accept that the right to protection will disappear for most children without the further protection of anonymity, we are compellingly drawn in this case to allowing A.B.’s anonymous legal pursuit of the identity of her cyberbully. ..
[29]                          The acknowledgment of the relative unimportance of the identity of a sexual assault victim is a complete answer to the argument that the non-disclosure of the identity of a young victim of online sexualized bullying is harmful to the exercise of press freedom or the open courts principle.  Canadian Newspapers clearly establishes that the benefits of protecting such victims through anonymity outweigh the risk to the open court principle. 
[30]                          On the other hand, as in Canadian Newspapers, once A.B.’s identity is protected through her right to proceed anonymously, there seems to me to be little justification for a publication ban on the non-identifying content of the fake Facebook profile.  If the non-identifying information is made public, there is no harmful impact since the information cannot be connected to A.B.  The public’s right to open courts and press freedom therefore prevail with respect to the non-identifying Facebook content.
[31]                          I would allow the appeal in part to permit A.B. to proceed anonymously in her application for an order requiring Eastlink to disclose the identity of the relevant IP user(s).   I would, however, not impose a publication ban on that part of the fake Facebook profile that contains no identifying information.

AB v. Bragg Communications Inc., Anonymity, bc injury law, Cyberbullying, open court principle

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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