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Online, users mete out justice

Aug 22 2012

While police with the B.C. Hate Crime Team are investigating whether controversial comments posted by Facebook user Dan Speed last week meet the threshold for a hate crime, a Victoria defence lawyer suggests Speed has already been dealt with by society.

Defence lawyer Robert Mulligan said one of the most powerful things people in social groups can do is disapprove of the conduct of other members.

"No one likes to be held up to criticism for being thoughtless, rude or ignorant," he said. "So there has already been an effective community response.

Sometimes the greatest consequence is being identified, dressed down, marked, shamed and discouraged from repeating the conduct."

On Thursday, Speed suggested the Masjid Al-Iman Mosque on Quadra Street should be blasted with a rocket launcher.

He also complained about noise pollution and the call to prayer, which will take place five times a day at the new mosque.

Other users quickly condemned Speed, accusing him of ignorance, hate and bigotry. One writer told him to respect others from different cultures. "It is time to educate yourself," wrote another.

The legal system serves an important purpose, but not everything has to be dealt with in a legal way, Mulligan said. In this case, fellow citizens told Speed they didn't like what he was writing.

"We can assume he got the point that this is generally not acceptable. In many ways, that's the best response the community can have," Mulligan said. "I find it encouraging when I see others remarking on people's intemperate comments."

Speed's employer also reacted swiftly. By Monday, the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires had suspended Speed with pay, pending an investigation. On Tuesday, the company said its investigation was complete and that Speed had been placed on medical leave without pay while his medical problems are resolved.

Although social media has made it easier for people to publish online threats, these cases are not common, Mulligan said.

Statistics on the number of online threats are not available, but, anecdotally, people would probably say that of the threats that do occur, more and more of them occur online, said Peter Juk, regional Crown counsel for Vancouver Island and Powell River.

"The ability of people to express thoughts and ideas and have instant communication and the constant updating of how they feel, makes people say more things online," Juk said.

"But criminal law still requires that there be some degree of intentionality behind it. Like any other criminal case, the Crown has to have some evidence of intent. A joke threat is not a threat."

Intent can be proven from wording, circumstances such as past conduct and other circumstantial evidence, Juk said.

"But without proof of intent to make an actual threat, we can't approve a charge," he said.

The actual language is important, Mulligan said. "If I say, 'I'm going to fire a rocket into your house,' I'm directly threatening to do it. If somebody muses that 'Somebody's going to be taken care of,' that's not a threat. That's an expression."

Although comments might not be cause for arrest or prosecution, it might still be a good idea to keep an eye on someone making statements that support something bad happening, Mulligan said.

"It could be an indicator of trouble going to happen," he said.

People should be free to express their opinions, no matter how offensive, but the B.C. Civil Liberties Association draws the line when a specific threat is made against an individual or organization, said spokesman David Eby.

"Our organization says someone has the right to make those comments in his private life, but it changes when someone says, 'I think we should blow up the mosque' or encourages others to do that."

People have a sense of anonymity around online comments, believing they are not as serious as saying something to someone's face, he said.

"People don't think it through. They don't think a threat online is the same thing as a threat in real life, but it is as far as police and Canadian law are concerned."

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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