Tuesday, 9 July 2013


The last 20 years has seen a plethora of authoritarian legislation in the United States, Canada and England. This legislation has often been accompanied by the best of intentions.  As Paul Craig Roberts says in the Tyranny of Good Intentions “The twentieth century’s belief in government power as a force for good has encouraged the practice of chasing after devils.  Like a national emergency, a righteous cause can cut a wide swath through the law to more easily apprehend wrongdoers.”  The legislators more often than not have been spurred by reform oriented media campaigns. The end result, however, has been an accumulative attack on basic civil rights that extend back to the Magna Carta.

The new anti-bullying legislation in Nova Scotia is typical of the type of bad laws that are resulting from good intentions.  The anti-bullying law, as is often the case, was prompted by the suicide of a teenager allegedly caused by so-called bullying which took place primarily on the Internet.  There are undoubtedly many nuances to teenage suicide but they are swept aside when there is a convenient explanation available.  The end result is an intense media campaign which politicians ignore at their peril.

In the Nova Scotia case the provincial Attorney General at first instance said that he had been advised by Crown prosecutors that there was no basis for proceeding with criminal charges.  This was not the right thing to say to the media and to the new type of mob rule on the Internet characterized by the hacker group Anonymous.  Very quickly a scared government reversed its original position and rushed to introduce new legislation.

The provincial government in Nova Scotia is NDP which is a left of centre political party.  The legislation that they introduced has this extremely broad definition of bullying: “Bullying” means behaviour, typically repeated, that is intended to cause or should be known to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property, and can be direct or indirect, and includes assisting or encouraging the behaviour in any way,” 

Typically repeated but not necessarily repeated.  There is no reasonable person limitation to “distress to feelings”; some people’s feelings can be distressed by most anything.  Harm to self-esteem - repeatedly giving a pupil low grades could obviously cause harm to his or her self-esteem.  All sorts of people, especially politicians, can claim harm to their reputation - by repeated comments in newspapers.  Then consider indirectly causing loss of self-esteem or harm to feelings - let the imagination go wild.  You write a book like the God Delusion - you are harming the feelings of all sorts of religious people.  The final cooker - “assisting the behaviour” in any way - well that’s broad enough to take in virtually everyone and every act.

This was not sufficient for the Liberal and Conservative opposition political parties.  Very soon Nova Scotia’s politicians were outdoing each other proposing even more draconic legislation.  The Liberals wanted cyberbulling to become a criminal offense (imagine a criminal offence with the hugely broad definition of bullying contained in the legislation) and wanted a provision to require school boards to immediately notify Internet service and cell phone companies in instances where so-called bullying has occurred. The other opposition party, the Conservatives, proposed holding parents liable if the parent or guardian had been warned that the youth was suspected of cyberbullying OR knew or ought to have known the youth was cyberbullying.  Due diligence would be a defence to parental liability, i.e. if parents engage in 24 hour snooping on their kid they would probably be off the hook. 

The Conservative’s proposed bill also contained this weird definition: "recklessly" includes by sending electronically or posting online, including in any form of social media, any comment, picture, video or audio if there is a reasonable probability of causing harm to a person.  Is there anything that could be sent electronically or posted that “reasonably” might not cause harm to at least one very sensitive person.

Neither opposition party suggested that perhaps the original legislation was already far too broad.  No one asked whether Nova Scotia was going to end up with a society where people are investigated and locked up because they say something that might hurt someone's feelings?  No politician considered the possibility that future governments might expand the definition of "bullying" to include criticism of the state and "elected" officials?

What the Nova Scotia experience shows is that the tyranny of good intentions crosses traditional political boundaries and encompasses all mainstream political ideologies.  If there is someone saying wait a minute or hold back or take a second look, it is usually a party or person on the right or left wing fringe.  Somewhere along the way the prudent, reasonable people of the Centre have been lost.

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