Since its launch two weeks ago, Save Our Neighbourhood Action Group (SONAG)’s website, saveourneighbourhood.ca, has been eliciting responses of all kinds from Queen’s staff and students.
The website includes photo galleries of student parties spilling out onto lawns and streets, and includes the addresses of the houses where the parties were held. The photos were taken by SONAG founder and former city councillor Don Rogers.
Arthur Cockfield, associate professor in the faculty of law, said Rogers likely hasn’t committed a criminal offence, but this could change if his activities harass or criminally defame Ghetto residents.
“Don may be liable under tort law, a civil offence, for invasion of privacy or defamation. At this point, it is unclear at least to me whether he would in fact be liable in part because there are so few Canadian cases surrounding the posting of videos of public [or] private spaces on the Internet,” he told the Journal via e-mail. “If a specific individual is identifiable in his photos [or] videos and he makes an inaccurate statement about this individual that damages his or her reputation, then Don could be sued for defamation in court.”
Cockfield said a lawsuit could also extend to the Internet service provider who hosts the website’s content.
“If an Internet service provider posts his photos [or] videos on the web through its server then the ISP may have violated privacy rights set out in the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act [PIPEDA] that governs the personal information collection practices of Canadian businesses, and hence may not directly apply to Don or his organization,” he said. “Again, the legal outcome is uncertain.”
Cockfield said in comparison to celebrity news coverage in magazines and on websites and television, the privacy of a private individual is under greater protection under Canadian law.
“If you’re a celebrity in Canada and PerezHilton.com posts your picture and then he draws on it, that is acceptable, but our courts have held that if you’re a private individual, not a public figure, you have greater rights to maintain your privacy, in terms of defamation,” he said. “To have to make an untrue statement that harms an individual’s reputation, that’s where some of the captions may be defamatory. If he’s saying things like ‘they are partying,’ and they are, that’s an outright defense.” Cockfield said if a lawsuit was brought against Rogers, it may be easier to find him liable under tort law than to convict him under the Criminal Code.
“Under criminal law in Canada, the crown prosecuting attorney has to establish all of the relevant facts beyond a reasonable doubt. The test in civil court is balance of probability, greater than 50 per cent,” he said. “There is a chance, but the countervailing issue is one of freedom of expression, and that his rights to a quiet community are under assault and the local police force aren’t doing enough and therefore, as a citizen, he should have the right to publicize it in his community.”
Ryan Letourneau, ArtSci ’10, started the “Take Pictures of Don Rogers” Facebook group, which has grown to over 350 members since its creation last week.
“After I saw the website, I felt a lot of anger and kind of like my privacy was being invaded. After a couple of hours of stewing in my own juices, I got over it, and I started thinking how can we voice our disapproval with this, and that’s how the Facebook group came about.”
Letourneau said he doesn’t think the group will solve any problems, but hopes it will open up lines of discussion between Don Rogers and students.
“What we’re finding is that it’s not pictures that are popping up, it’s more discussion and a lot of dissenting opinions within the group, getting a lot of good ideas raised,” he said. “I think on the issue of straining things that are already stressed, you should also bring up how I don’t think Don Rogers is going about this the right way.” Letourneau said he plans to maintain the Facebook group as long as it remains popular.
“It doesn’t really require much effort, so I’ll keep it open forever, basically,” he said. “I’ll keep updating it as long as people are still talking. The discussion is relatively active and pictures are still being added.”
Jamie Bignell, PHE ’10, said she and her housemates found out their house was pictured on SONAG’s website after reading the Sept. 16 issue of the Journal.
“We weren’t thrilled. It was more so the captions he had underneath that were mostly untrue saying we had a full house and people on the lawn, when in actuality we had an empty house because people were on the lawn. … Stuff like that that didn’t show us in the best light.” Bignell said she told her parents about the website.
“They weren’t too happy because it was some guy creeping around taking pictures. It was when he said he was going to put up audio and videos people couldn’t see him taking. I don’t really want some strange man standing in the bushes tape recording my conversations,” she said. “My parents weren’t very happy, but I don’t think I’ll take legal action for it.” Bignell said she and her housemates will continue to host parties at their house, regardless of SONAG’s website.
“It’s the nice weather right now, people want to be outside because the houses are old and poorly insulated so it’s really hot, but once it gets colder I’m sure people will move inside.” Dan Trottier, PhD ’10, is a student researcher on the surveillance project, a multi-disciplinary research group housed in the sociology department. One of the branches of the project includes the study of the use of media, technology and the Internet for surveillance purposes.
Trottier said although Rogers’ website doesn’t appear to break any laws, it’s still unethical, even under the pretense that Rogers is taking pictures on public property.
“You still have other people on their property being photographed. The fact is that rather than having a dialogue or conversation with these students, it’s a one-sided version, capturing them and outing them online,” he said. “He does on his website mention wanting to have some kind of discussion, but he’s targeting the AMS and the police force as unable to have this conversation.”
Trottier said he thinks SONAG’s website unfairly portrays students as neglecting property standards.
“He talks about how these people are having parties in their front yard and are asking for trouble, but when you look at a lot of student housing, the backyard has been converted into a parking lot, and people don’t have the same kind for right to their own space that a lot of Kingston residents do,” he said. “I’m not taking a very anti-Don Rogers stance because I think some of his concerns are entirely valid.
“There should be a way to better town-gown relations, but this isn’t the way to do it.”
Trottier said he’s looking into organizing an open-forum discussion between Rogers and Queen’s students.
“I’ve been trying to organize a meeting, debate, town hall or an informal meeting between these two groups,” he said. “I have yet to contact Don because I wanted to find some kind of student group that wanted to take that position. Thus far, I’ve just been talking with the AMS and it seems as though the people I’ve spoke to are reluctant to do it just now that Homecoming is around the corner.”
Trottier said as someone who pays both municipal taxes as well as tuition fees, he can sympathize with both sides of the situation.
“While I don’t agree with SONAG’s practices, it has been able to rekindle a longstanding dialogue between the student community and Kingston residents,” he told the Journal via e-mail. “The Internet is a powerful tool, but we need to bring this dialogue back to a face-to-face setting.”
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