Editorial: What the Supreme Court really thinks about cyberbullying

It's okay, but only when unions are the bullies

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Bullying, we’re repeatedly told, is a growing problem in Canada. The federal, provincial and municipal governments have recently introduced new laws to put an end to bullying in schools and elsewhere; public service announcements abound. Cyberbullying is a particularly pressing concern these days.

It seems the Supreme Court didn’t get the memo.

In a unanimous ruling last week, Canada’s top court issued what looks to be a ringing endorsement of cyberbullying . . . but only when unions are the ones doing the bullying.

At issue is a seven-year-old labour dispute involving workers at a casino in the West Edmonton Mall. Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, legally on strike, set up video cameras to film non-union strike breakers. Signs warned anyone entering the casino they could expect to see their faces posted on the website One picket-line crosser had his picture printed on a poster designed to look like a police mug shot, as well as superimposed on the head of a turkey in a pamphlet.

Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner initially ruled that videotaping workers in this way was a violation of provincial privacy legislation. Last week, however, the Supreme Court handed down its final ruling on the matter: It turns out such behaviour is all part of a union’s constitutionally protected freedom of expression. It ordered the province to rewrite its privacy laws.

While there may be many legitimate reasons to film a picket line, it’s blatantly obvious that the purpose in this case?based on the union’s own signage and actions?was to intimidate and publicly humiliate strikebreakers via the Internet with the goal of changing their minds about working at the casino. Threatening to post pictures on a scurrilous website certainly fits within Statistics Canada’s definition of cyberbullying as “the use of the Internet to threaten, antagonize or intimidate someone.”

The Supreme Court didn’t find this connection troubling. Threats and humiliation are all part of the constitutional protections afforded unions in labour disputes. “A union may achieve its goal by putting pressure on those who intend to cross the picket line,” the judgment reads. “Strikes are not tea parties.” Pressuring strikebreakers once involved crowding entrance ways and yelling insults. Now it seems this behaviour can be moved to the cyberworld as well.

While the Supreme Court may have given its blessing to videotaping for the purpose of union-sanctioned cyberbullying, the judges are certainly not alone in accepting this sort of behaviour. Last week provided another opportunity to witness the public shaming of disputants, this time in the legal realm.

Doriana Silva, a Brazilian immigrant living in Toronto, recently made news by seeking $21 million in damages from Toronto-based Ashley Madison, an international dating website for married people who want to have an affair. Her claim involves a wrist injury she says she suffered while working for the firm. Of particular and salacious interest is the allegation she’d been employed to write “fake female profiles . . . to entice paying heterosexual male members to join and spend money on the website.”

Now it goes without saying that repetitive-strain injuries do not depend on the subject matter being typed, as Ashley Madison pointed out in its rejoinder to Silva’s lawsuit. Then the firm drew attention to photos Silva had posted on various social media websites. “In several postings, Ms. Silva can be seen clearly enjoying herself on a jet ski?an unlikely activity for someone who has allegedly suffered serious injury,” the firm said in a press release. In a flash, the storyline shifted to Silva’s own self-inflicted public humiliation.

Whatever the merits of her lawsuit, or Ashley Madison’s business model, Silva’s situation drives home the pressing fact that social media has made it possible to catch anyone at their worst or most vulnerable and preserve that moment forever. All of us, it seems, is a mere click away from permanent public embarrassment. Or cyberbullying, if you prefer. Is this the world we want?

There is much about the current political obsession with bullying that seems overwrought, particularly when it comes to passing new laws (as opposed to simply enforcing existing laws that already forbid physical abuse or threatening actions). However, if society has really decided it no longer wishes to tolerate electronic bullying or humiliations between teenagers, it ought to make sense for the adult world to start demonstrating appropriate online behaviour as well. The Supreme Court’s institutionalization of cybershaming in labour negotiations seems a particularly poor example to set.