The Canadian Law Professor’s Take on Online Harassment

Death threats. Racist taunts. Vows of violence. Inside the increasingly personal attacks targeting Canadian female journalists on social media, the most common threat is the one to sue.

A spate of such legal threats against journalists began last summer, with more than a dozen making headlines in the news media around the world. Several high-profile incidents have also drawn media attention.

While there have been no reported physical attacks, the recent threats have prompted questions and concerns around journalistic reporting and free speech.

This week, The Canadian Press revealed that an Alberta man is suing two Canadian women journalists because, he alleges, they have falsely accused him of harassing them online and calling them “whores” and “sluts.”

Another online threat against a journalist in Alberta is the subject of a public inquiry into online harassment.

All of that comes on top of an online threat delivered to a journalist by a Calgary man who said he was going to “rape and kill” her and her employer. That threat has been investigated by the RCMP, and police say they have interviewed the man.

And finally, a Canadian lawyer has stepped forward to say he is considering the possibility of a lawsuit against three women journalists for reporting on his wife’s suicide.

Those threats and those stories have led Canadian law professor Richard Fidler to look at the problem of online harassment.

As news organizations, universities and other media organizations work to deal with the threats, he says it’s important to understand the motives behind them.

For Fidler, the answer is clear.

“They are people who are really angry about the world, and they’re really angry about the women in it,” he said.

The threats on the rise

It started, he said, as a couple of trolls went after a reporter from the Globe and Mail. In that case, the trolls were Canadians angry about the fact that a Toronto police officer had released information to the media, revealing that a man who had been charged with sexual assault had allegedly threatened a reporter and was allegedly violent.

In that case, the trolls were people unhappy about a story about a man who was charged with assault and violating a protection order on social media sites.

But over time the trolling seems to have grown,

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