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Anti-Police Graffiti Photo Posted Online, Gets Montreal Woman Formally Charged
April 17, 2013
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Jennifer Pawluck (right) leaves court today after her arraignment

A Montreal woman was in court today, in a case that raises big questions about policing social media.

Jennifer Pawluck, 20, was arrested after she posted a photo of anti-police graffiti on Instagram.

The graffiti showed Commander Ian Lafrenière, the main spokesperson for the Montreal police, with a bullet hole in his head and was on the side of a commercial building.

It's since been removed. Lafrenière is quite visible in Montreal, as he typically speaks for the police on big events such as last year's student protests.

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Commander Ian Lafrenière of the Montreal Police

Today, Pawluck was formally charged with criminal harassment and intimidation of a police officer. Her lawyer Denis Poitras called the allegations "a bit exaggerated."

Pawluck pleaded not guilty and her lawyer said he will ask that she be tried before a jury.

She says she took the picture after she saw it on a brick wall and shared it. But she says didn't create the actual piece of graffiti.

"I think the person behind the artwork should be in my place... all I did was take a photo," Pawluck said after her arrest.

"I am someone who is very artistic. I know that the photo is violent, but all the same I thought it was well done. My aim was not to be threatening."

The caricature had a uniform with the name "Ian" on the pocket. It also had the name "Ian Lafrenière" written next to it but wasn't signed.

Police showed up at Pawluck's home, took her in for questioning, and released her on the condition she appear in court.

She refused to answer most of their questions. She says she's done nothing wrong and the actions of the police amount to harassment.

Today, police said there's more to the case, with intimidating postings on other sites. Pawluck's lawyer said he just received the evidence and hasn't had a chance to review it.

Pawluck took part in student protests over the past year and was fined a few times during marches deemed illegal by police.

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Jennifer Pawluck in an interview with CBC Montreal

All of this set off a debate as to whether the charge is too severe. How much freedom should people have online? When does freedom of expression cross the line?

Montreal police say when lawyers, judges or police officers are thought to be targeted or threatened, there is zero tolerance.

"It's something that is taken seriously and there is no tolerance when something like this targets someone from the justice system," according to police spokesperson Anie Lemieux.

"In this case, it's a police officer and it's being taken very seriously."

Lawyer Robert La Haye told The National Post "it's a new thing that we're dealing with here, where we have an image of a police officer (allegedly) being threatened - is there something more to it'?"

"We don't know. Probably not, but it's still menacing. In that case, the most likely charge is uttering threats or criminal harassment," he said.

Dan Burnett is a lawyer based in Vancouver and a professor at the University of British Columbia.

He told CBC News that the Crown looks at whether the person who posted the content is also taking responsibility for it.

"The law treats somebody who publishes as responsible, regardless of if they are the first publisher or the one who expanded publication to a new audience of thousands more people, with very limited exceptions," Burnett said.

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Det. Jeffrey Bangild, an officer in charge of a crime and family service unit in Toronto, said it's one thing to go online and say you don't like someone - it's another thing to post an image that could be a threat.

Bangild said something like this graffiti image would be looked at by police (even if police weren't the target).

Eric Sutton, a Montreal criminal defence lawyer, says the Crown will have to prove that Lafrenière reasonably feared for his safety because of the photo Pawluck posted.

"I think this may be somewhat of a political statement by the police that they have zero tolerance for anything that's seen as threatening to their image," Sutton told CBC.

Amid all of this is the reality that social media is changing all the time but the law hasn't caught up yet.

And people who use social media don't always realize what kind of thing could get them in trouble.

"We have to realize that when we take a picture of something and send it out, it can be interpreted in a million ways," said Sydneyeve Matrix, a professor in the Department of Media and Film at Queen's University.

"It can be interpreted as endorsement. And it could spread a message far and wide that does amazing damage, whether it's reputational damage or whether it inspires behaviours that we would never condone."

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