The Supreme Court of Canada has joined the battle to eliminate bullying, clearing the way for a Nova Scotia girl to pursue her Facebook tormentors under a cloak of anonymity.
The court said on Thursday that vulnerable minors cannot be expected to confront cyberbullies unless they can do so without exposing their full identities.
The decision was a blow to media rights, which have traditionally fared well at the Supreme Court level. However, Madam Justice Rosalie Abella described the intrusion as minimal when compared to the need to encourage victims of bullying to come forward.
"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 co-operation with authorities," Judge Abella said for the unanimous court.
Childrens' advocates praised the ruling on Thursday as a vital step toward wiping out cyberbullying.
"Because of the nature of our service, we know that anonymity encourages young people to reach out for help and inspires candour and honesty," said Alisa Simon, a spokesman for Kids Help Phone, an organization that counsels about 250,000 children each year. "It allows young people to share their feelings without fear of reprisal or ridicule."
The girl, identified only as A.B., is now 17. She launched her legal application two years ago to force an Internet provider to reveal the identities of those who had created a fake Facebook page and embellished it with humiliating, purported sexual details.
Two media corporations – The Halifax Herald and Global Television – heard of the application and opposed her request for anonymity.
The girl and her father obtained the court order unmasking the perpetrators of the fake Facebook page, but the Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge who granted it refused to ban publication of the girl's name or the details of the Facebook entry when reporting on any court action she pursues.
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal upheld the ruling on the basis that the girl's lawyers had failed to provide evidence showing she would suffer sufficient harm to justify imposing on press freedoms.
However, Judge Abella said on Thursday that it is needless for a particular child to show that he or she would be adversely affected by publicity.
"The law attributes the heightened vulnerability based on chronology, not temperament," she said. "It is logical to infer that children can suffer harm through cyberbullying, given the psychological toxicity of the phenomenon."
The court also reversed a legal costs award that had gone against the girl. But it said that information in the fake Facebook profile can be published provided it does not identify her.
While the two media organizations that had opposed the girl opted not to make legal arguments in the Supreme Court, a coalition of media groups did so. They contended that press rights can be curtailed only if there is tangible evidence that permitting publication could cause serious harm.
"Stories about real, identified people carry more meaning for, and resonate more, with readers, listeners and viewers than stories about unidentified people," the media lawyers said in a brief to the court. "Decisions dealing with real people can make the justice system seem understandable and accessible."
In a recent report, the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying said Canadian high schools have 252,000 cases of bullying per month.
"Cyberbullying can be particularly destructive because it can spread to many people very quickly and it can be done anonymously or through impersonation," the task force report said.