Amici Curiae: The Plagiarizing Politician, Facebook Privacy, and Blasphemy in Pakistan Edition

SCOTUS Rules for Westboro Baptist Church

In an 8-1 decision, the United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of protesting at funerals as an exercise of freedom of speech. The decision has received significant media scrutiny due to the controversial nature of the defendant, the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC).

The initial action was launched by Albert Snyder, father of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who died while serving in Iraq, after members of the WBC picketed the funeral with signs and slogans asserting that Matthew’s death was God’s way of punishing the United States for its leniency with regard to homosexuality. At trial, Snyder successfully argued that the Church had harassed him, and was awarded eleven million dollars in a jury trial. The decision was overturned on appeal, a decision which has now been endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the WBC has been widely condemned for their actions, the decision is hardly surprising. One might argue, as the U.S. Supreme Court has seemingly accepted, that the freedom of speech (or ‘expression,’ in the Canadian context) guarantee exists to safeguard precisely this type of conduct. That isn’t to say civil society is completely powerless, however. As the widespread media condemnation, “Angel” counter-protests, and even cyber-hacking show, there still exist a myriad of ways to combat such ignorance without invoking the coercive power of the state to censor individuals.

G20 Public Inquiry Calls

After more than seven months since Toronto hosted the G20 Summit, civil liberties groups have finished internal inquiries and are now calling for a public inquiry into the event’s handling, namely police (mis/)conduct.

Thus far the calls have fallen on deaf ears, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has rejected the demand. And he is not without his supporters. Specifically, many feel an inquiry would be a colossal waste of money (as they often are) for quite limited results.

Conversely, in light of the police treatment of, for example, Natalie Gray, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Union of Public and General Employees have made impassioned and well-publicized justifications for a public inquiry.

As with most decisions, the question comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. On the one hand, determining the extent and type of rights violations that occurred is important, especially given that it can illuminate how municipal, provincial and federal governments can better stage such events in the future. Moreover, holding those like the police to account who are prone to abuse their authority is, no doubt, important.

On the other, how much can we realistically expect a public inquiry to deliver? Inquiries are expensive processes which typically take years to complete. We already know police conduct was egregious, violating countless person’s rights in the process. Individuals who endured the worst of police brutality can bring private actions (as Ms. Gray has). 

As we move into a period of fiscal austerity, do we really need to spend millions of dollars and years of investigation just to say, “I told you so?” It appears only time will tell.

German Defence Minister Resigns in Plagiarism Scandal

German Defence Minister Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has resigned after having been found to have plagiarized large portions of his doctorate thesis.

The now former politician had captivated Germany since his entrance into politics, combining a prestigious and aristocratic lifestyle and background with a ‘man of the people’ approach to politics. Despite his aristocratic origins, Guttenberg sought and attained a doctorate degree, a badge of honor in postwar Germany, where education has replaced birth as a sign of elite status.

Examining the development of constitutional law in the United States and European Union, Guttenberg’s dissertation was found to have plagiarized almost two third’s of his material. Although the University was quick to strip Guttenberg of his degree, German Chancellor Angela Merkel initially stood by her beleaguered political ally, arguing that Guttenberg’s personal conduct while in school was unrelated to his duties as minister of defence. Her stance was met by a wave of opposition from opposition parties as well as German academics which ultimately led to the Defence Minister’s resignation.

Previously considered a likely future Chancellor, Guttenberg’s departure leaves a major gap in an already shaky coalition government.

Trade In Your Privacy For a Facebook App

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for his company –to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share.

However, Facebook users seemed to be terrified when Facebook announced its plan to share user information with third-party developers and external websites. Angry responses are coming from all quarters – Facebook users, privacy advocates, US congress representatives and US lawmakers.

Representatives Edward Markey and Joe Barton sent Mark Zuckerberg a letter questioning the company’s plan and raising concerns for children and teenagers who may opt to share their personal information with third-party developers without thoroughly knowing the ramifications.

In response, Facebook wrote a letter to the Congressmen and issued a statement to The Huffington Post—all refusing to back off a plan to share user information despite considerable objections.

In the statement to The Huffington Post, Facebook emphasized the advantage for sharing information because it would make online shopping speedier:

“Despite some rumors, there’s no way for other websites to access a user’s address or phone number from Facebook. For people that may find this option useful in the future, we’re considering ways to let them share this information (for example to use an online shopping site without always having to re-type their address). People will always be in control of what Facebook information they share with apps and websites.”

Although Facebook vowed to highlight the sharing process so the users will be in full control with what they share with third-party developers, users are still at risk of giving up their information too easily. Most of the time, people click “Accept” without reading the terms and conditions just so it will allow you to proceed. If this “sharing process” is implemented, users who want to use third-party applications to play games might be “coerced” to share their private information with advertisers.

In addition, Facebook noted that it is “actively considering” whether to allow applications to request contact information from minors. However, this explanation is not satisfactory. Currently, Facebook prohibits usage of the service by minors under 13. Thus, it is quite possible that some users might not have reported their real age on Facebook.

Facebook has been pushing users to share more information, creating networks of friends and activities, and allowing user profiles to be searched by the public on Google, Yahoo and MSN Search. Last year, we reported here at that Facebook accidentally leaked user information to third-party applications due to a technical flaw.

In 2009, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has been critical of Facebook in the past, claiming that it has breached the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). It would be interesting to hear comments from Canada’s Privacy Commissioner on Facebook’s 2011 decision to “legitimately” give out user’s information.

Facebook Photos as Evidence in Court

Interestingly, and in a busy news week for Facebook, Canadian courts have now extended evidence search in social networking websites.

Recently, New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Fred Ferguson ordered a lawyer to seize the plaintiff’s Facebook photos to determine the severity of her injuries.

In a motor vehicle accident, Erica Sparks was injured and sued the other driver for personal injury damages. Clearly, the driver’s insurance company wanted her injuries to be as minimal as possible.

Because Ms. Sparks could have easily deleted her Facebook photos if she knew beforehand, Justice Ferguson ordered Ms. Spark’s lawyer to secretly arrange to have another lawyer to call Ms. Sparks for a meeting and then order her to download her Facebook photos and videos. The photos, which would constitute evidence against her in the lawsuit, showed her “navigating a strenuous treetop obstacle course” and “shopping on vacation”.

“The phenomenal growth of some of these networks, in subscriber numbers, ensures that they will routinely be consulted in future by opposing parties in litigation and will become an integral part of the disclosure process.” Justice Ferguson wrote in his judgment.

The case is now settled out of court. However, Sparks’s lawyer said he would have asked the appeal court to quash the order claiming that his client’s right to legal advice was threatened.

“It, in my view, amounts to almost a civil search warrant, but using one’s own lawyer to execute it, which as far as I know is unknown to Canadian law,” Sparks’s lawyer said.

Should Facebook photos be allowed as evidence in court? While a majority of CBC readers have voted “yes”, it is important to realize that Facebook could be a hotbed of identity theft and false information. This is the first time a judge has ordered a plaintiff’s lawyer to “trick” his client into handing evidence over.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, has been shot dead outside his Islamabad home after pushing for the reform of blasphemy laws. Bhatti had predicted his own death, but vowed to continue speaking up for other minorities.

Just two months ago, the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own police bodyguards. The killer confessed that he killed Taseer because Taseer was “an apostate” under Islamic law. The killer had been feted as a hero by religious establishments in the country.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law makes blasphemy a crime punishable by death. In Canada, blasphemy is an obsolete law, but the Criminal Code of Canada forbids hate propaganda which targets an “identifiable group”. While the right to freedom of expression is protected under the Charter, this right is not without limit. Extreme forms of expression still need to be curtailed for the protection of other human rights.

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