A woman who was accused of defamation for using social media to publicly identify people accused of sexual violence wants the Saskatchewan government to pass legislation that could protect people speaking out on matters of public interest.
Saskatchewan Opposition MLA Nicole Sarauer introduced Bill 607, an anti-SLAPP (anti-strategic litigation against public participation) bill in December 2021. The legislation would allow judges to quickly assess and potentially toss out lawsuits targeting people who have spoken out on matters of public interest.
The bill has received little traction in Saskatchewan. That’s why the woman who ran a #MeToo Instagram page called Victim Voices Regina is calling attention to it now. CBC is not naming the woman, who is a survivor herself.
She created an Instagram account in 2020 to post stories and allegations of sexual violence in Regina. People submitted their experiences of sexual harassment and assault to her through direct messaging. She removed their names from the stories, but published the names of some accused alongside the allegations against them.
The page quickly picked up steam, gaining thousands of followers. She said hundreds of women and men contributed. Several high-profile people in positions of power were accused of misconduct.
The woman behind the Instagram account was not actually ever sued, but she received several warnings that men who had been named in posts were planning to sue for defamation. One Regina man filed a suit against Facebook, which owns Instagram, seeking $1 million in damages for the publication of what he said were “untrue and defamatory allegations of sexual assault arising from the Victims Voices of Regina Instagram account.”
“Someone went to great lengths to find out who I am and threatened my security, my employment, my livelihood, my reputation as a person,” she said. “The worst-case scenario was bad for me. Very bad. It never came to fruition. I never was served with any papers, however the threat of it loomed over my head for months.”
She said she shut down the page in response to the legal threats. She said this effectively ended a #MeToo movement in Regina and made people afraid to speak out further.
“[Defamation suits] are just a tool used to shut people up and put fear into them so they stop talking about it, and I think it works,” she said. People accused of misconduct on the page tried to find out her identity.
Lawyers told her that, if a defamation suit against her made it to court, people who revealed their stories anonymously would have to expose themselves and testify in court on the validity of their claims. This didn’t sit well with the woman.
“The thought or even the suggestion of doing something like that to me was absolutely outrageous,” she said, adding this would damage the victims she’d been trying to help. “The page was created to provide community, to provide a space of trust, support, understanding.”
She wonders if she would have been able to keep the page up, had anti-SLAPP legislation existed.
From her perspective, the page was a matter of public interest and helped identify problems within the community that had gone unreported.
“The page, as it stood, was aimed at creating positive change, was a positive space for survivors and ultimately was creating positive change. We could see that reflected in the folks who were called out, who ultimately apologized.
Some businesses that changed their practices,” she said.
“The page highlighted the very serious network of folks who continue to use positions of power to assault and harass victims.”
Legislation has broad application
Saskatoon lawyer Sean Sinclair said anti-SLAPP legislation can make it safer for people to discuss matters of public interest freely and openly. “In a world of social media, people express opinions and provide information out to the public in a variety of different forms, so the anti-SLAPP legislation has broad application to really everybody,” Sinclair said.
The legislation allows a court to assess whether the issue in question was indeed a matter of public interest and whether there is enough validity for the lawsuit to go ahead, he said.
“It doesn’t prevent people from being able to access the court system on valid cases, but it allows the court to assess that validity at a very early stage,” Sinclair said.
“The reality is that lawsuits can sometimes be commenced to discourage public debate, and by doing so, it stymies public discourse through something we call libel chill… the threat of legal action has a chilling effect.”
This means lawsuits aren’t always filed with the intent of winning. Instead, Sinclair said the goal is discouraging someone from further discourse by bogging them down with legal fees and large amounts of time trying to defend themselves.
The woman who ran the Regina #MeToo Instagram page said the threat of defamation suits made the last two years exhausting and nerve-wracking. But ultimately she doesn’t regret it. Now she wants the government to enact this legislation, which she believes could help others trying to speak up against powerful people.
Politician Nicole Sarauer said her proposed Public Participation Act would bring Saskatchewan in line with other provinces. Similar legislation already exists in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.
“From a jurisdictional perspective, I think it’s really important that options legally that are available to citizens in other provinces should also be available in Saskatchewan,” Sarauer said. Sarauer said it’s up to the government to decide when private member’s bills are considered.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said “the Government of Saskatchewan is reviewing Bill 607 and continues to assess and monitor developments in this type of legislation from other jurisdictions.”