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Toronto police say they're not charging hecklers of on-air reporter

05/15/2015 09:23 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The viral phenomenon of hurling sexually explicit remarks at female reporters on the job is not one that's likely to be stamped out by Canadian courts, legal experts said Friday.

The trend, which has been plaguing journalists in the United States and Canada since last year, falls into a legal no man's land that can leave lawyers and police alike seeking direction.

The way in which two Canadian police forces have chosen to address the issue, they said, highlights the complexity of the situation.

Toronto police have indicated they won't pursue charges against men caught on video shouting obscenities at CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt. In Calgary, however, police have charged a man with a traffic offence after he hurled the same vulgarity at a CBC journalist.

Brenda Cossman, a law professor with the University of Toronto, said the legal system is fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with the age-old practice of heckling.

"It's a new version of an old phenomenon of street harassment of women that has been taking off," Cossman said in a telephone interview. "There's nothing in the Criminal Code that says: 'Thou shalt not say this.' The Criminal Code isn't written that way."

Cossman said the situations that confronted the two reporters also fall outside the purview of workplace sexual harassment legislation, since the incidents involve third parties who are not directly connected to the women's employers.

Hunt's two hecklers were attending the Toronto FC soccer game she was trying to cover last Sunday. She sparked a nationwide outcry about the practice when she turned the camera on them to question them about their conduct.

The TFC's parent company has since banned the men from their premises for at least a year, and one of them, Shawn Simoes, has lost his job with Ontario electricity producer Hydro One.

CBC reporter Meghan Grant was similarly accosted as she was conducting street interviews after a Calgary Flames playoff game.

The similarities ended there, however. Grant took down the licence plate of the vehicle the man was driving when he made his vulgar remark, and reported it to police. Officers eventually charged the unidentified man with stunting, an offense under Alberta's traffic safety act that bars people from distracting others on the road.

Hunt, on the other hand, said she never intended to file an official complaint with Toronto police. Force spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said that charges would not be appropriate in Hunt's situation, adding there were no other similar investigations underway.

Cara Zwibel, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said police discretion plays a crucial role in how such situations are handled.

While some officers may not wish to take action, others may look to the patchwork of municipal bylaws, traffic regulations and civil offences to find a way to lay charges.

The same vulgarity could be seen as a "nuisance" under one city's regulations and treated as "disturbing the peace" under another's. Civil harassment could also come into play, unless a person feels actively threatened or intimidated, in which case criminal laws could apply.

Zwibel said concerns about freedom of expression further deepen the quagmire, saying the context and details of every case will impact how it's handled.

She said, for instance, that police may view the same comments spoken to a man in a different light than they would if the target was a woman.

Invoking laws to solve these problems, she said, may be too heavy-handed for most situations.

"I don't want to suggest this is the kind of speech we really want to promote and that it's deserving of the utmost protection, but I do think we need to question whether taking punitive measures, using criminal law in particular, is an effective way to deal with this," Zwibel said.

Cossman agreed, saying Hunt's actions and the subsequent fallout can sometimes be a more effective deterrent than measures laid out in a law textbook.

"It may or may not be criminal activity, but there are a range of consequences when you engage in what is considered to be profoundly antisocial behaviour," she said. "Whether it's you get barred from TFC games, or you lose your job, or you just look like a goof out in public."

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