Riot comments turn focus to online libel in Vancouver
Glancing at a photograph of Bert Easterbrook taken during the Stanley Cup riot, it’s easy to see what he is doing, but not necessarily why. His fist has just connected with the face of a man in the crowd while behind him smoke drifts out of the windows of a truck parked outside the Canada Post building in downtown Vancouver.
According to Easterbrook, he hit the man on June 15 in an attempt to stop vandals from setting the truck on fire. After the image appeared on a Facebook page intended to help identify rioters for police, Easterbrook had to do some damage control as defamatory comments misconstrued his actions as participating in the riot instead of trying to stem the violence.
“As soon as the photo came out, I got right on Facebook and explained what it was. It had probably been out for two, maybe three hours before I got to comment,” Easterbrook told the Georgia Straight by phone. “Most of the comments after that were generally pretty good. But I have had a few real cherry remarks, and it just really [made me think], ‘Do you even have a concept of what just happened there?’ ”
Easterbrook burned his hands trying to pull burning newspapers out of the truck, and he sustained deep bruises from getting hit by rioters and police batons. His explanation was soon backed up by video posted online showing the lead-up to the confrontation, but Easterbrook said a few hurtful comments did make it onto Facebook.
“I’ve tried to just ignore a lot of them, basically, like ‘Surprise, surprise, even somebody that looks like a douchebag can actually do something nice,’ ” Easterbrook said. “A lot of people making off-the-cuff sort of judgments. It was just customized to whatever background of bigotry that they had.”
Easterbrook almost certainly wasn’t the only person targeted by libellous comments on social-networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter in the wake of the riot. Even online, posting a false statement that harms a person’s reputation can invite a lawsuit seeking damages.
Dave Teixeira runs Canucksriot2011.com. It’s one of the many websites hosting photo galleries designed to help identify rioters. Teixeira told the Straight that his site and the comments posted on it are a valuable tool to facilitate what he calls “crowd-sourcing justice”.
“The riot that night was chaotic, so in turn some of the IDs are going to be chaotic,” he said over the phone. “Not all the IDs I have been receiving are 100 percent, but every ID I have been turning over to police has been 100 percent. It’s been vetted by more than one source.”
While some of the comments use strong language, Teixeira believes they reflect the mood of the city after the riot. “I think that people feel terrorized,” he said. “They feel violated. This was not our city. So the backlash is often that way as well.”
A law firm in Victoria has offered to help Teixeira with any legal troubles that come his way. He said that he has referred one complaint to his legal team.
“I don’t take any of the threats of legal action against my site seriously because I have not done anything wrong. If there is any negativity my site has received, it’s I have a tendency to call the criminals—I interchange criminals, idiots, and morons,” Teixeira explained.
“The idiots, as I would call them, are the ones who impeded the police from the arrests by just being there. I think the criminal activity speaks for itself. If the police said to you, ‘Leave the riot zone,’ and you didn’t…you are a criminal now. I also call people ‘terrorists’. If you lit a police car on fire, you are a terrorist. You assaulted innocent people? You are a terrorist.”
North Vancouver–based lawyer Alan McConchie warns people like Teixeira to take a second look at comments on their sites. McConchie specializes in lawsuits involving online defamation, or cyberlibel.
“I think that is where the trouble is. If you start engaging in the interpretation of the facts of what is being depicted in the photos and what you say is untrue—that is your traditional case of libel. It’s not different if a newspaper did the same thing,” McConchie told the Straight by phone.
McConchie noted it’s difficult to keep comments on the Internet anonymous. Through court orders, service providers and website hosts can be compelled to disclose IP addresses and other data that link libellous statements to their posters.
“If you say, ‘This individual has come out of the Bay, he’s trashed some windows, stolen some bags, and he is no better than a criminal,’ and all he has really been doing is standing by for whatever reason—those people are very exposed for being sued for libel,” McConchie explained.
According to the lawyer, damages for online libel can range from $5,000 to upwards of $100,000.
“I think there is a legitimate exercise in posting these pictures and saying ‘Can you identify these people?’ and providing that information to police,” McConchie said. “My only point of offence is where you cross the line and you make the judgments yourself.”