Name and shame sanctions can help enforce pandemic rules — as long as they don't go too far, law prof says

The use of public shaming to enforce rules around the COVID-19 pandemic, such as social distancing, is an important way to keep everyone safe, a University of Calgary associate professor of law says.

Emily Laidlaw says in times like these, society relies on public shaming, but tone and civility are important

Crowds are seen at English Bay in Vancouver, B.C., on March 20, 2020, despite recommendations that people stay home and a minimum of two metres apart. A University of Calgary law professor says public shaming can be a useful tool to keep people safe, but tone and civility are important. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The use of public shaming to enforce rules around the COVID-19 pandemic, such as social distancing, is an important way to keep everyone safe, a University of Calgary associate professor of law says.

But, she says, sometimes people are not properly informed or they can go too far and turn the rule reinforcement into a form of online abuse.

Emily Laidlaw says photos are popping up on social media showing people crowded together in parks, stores, and along pathways, obviously violating social distancing rules.

She says calling out that recommendation-breaking behaviour can be necessary to keep everyone safe but she's also seen people launch into online attacks against businesses for staying open when they have every right to.

"It's concerning, when we are looking to ruin the reputations of businesses when we need to take a moment and say, do we have all the facts? Do we actually know what's happening on the ground to know if they really are complying or not? Or is it just the perception of [wrongdoing]," said Laidlaw.

Laidlaw said naming and shaming sanctions have an important role when there's an absence or inadequate enforcement of laws. 

"It's a strangely complicated area right because we actually rely on shame sanctions all the time."

She said, for example, people often "out" companies that treat staff poorly or have poor environmental records.

But she said it can become a problem if people are misinformed when they start wagging fingers.

She said there's so much information flooding in right now, and it's evolving so quickly, that people can get confused about which rule applies to which community.

For example, she said up until Monday, playgrounds were open in Calgary but closed in Cochrane.

"People are confusing some of the directives from other jurisdictions with our own and then shame you for it."

People were just trying to shame us, basically saying, 'you're selfish staying open.'- Sean Desaulniers, owner of the Trop

The owner of Trop Bar and Grill said he's had a few people try to bash his business on social media for staying open — because they lumped him in with bars and nightclubs that have been forced to close their doors during the COVID-19 crisis. 

"People were just trying to shame us, basically saying, 'you're selfish staying open, trying to endanger society,'" said Shaun Desaulniers, owner of the Trop Bar and Grill.

Desaulniers said the Trop is a restaurant and bar — but is currently operating as a licensed restaurant. He says he's stopped its bar operations, such as live music on the weekends.

He says he is following the guidelines set out by the Alberta government by allowing a maximum of 50 people inside at any given time including all staff. 

"By no means are you walking in there and seeing that we have a lineup of people waiting to get in, there are a few tables here and there."

Plus Desaulniers said only staff who want to work are working and protocols are in place to try to keep everyone safe.

Laidlaw said it's important for people to take a few moments to think before they publicly shame an individual or a business to think about the repercussions, and whether the punishment fits the crime.

"We just need to calm down with the disproportionate 'take him out' mentality that that we're seeing right now online that's not helping anybody," said Laidlaw. 

Shamed someone, or been shamed?

CBC News talked to a few Calgarians about whether they've shamed anyone, or been shamed into proper pandemic behaviour.

 "I've caught myself looking at people if they cough or sneeze," said Reynold Reimer.

"I work in retail so when someone comes in, they have a sick child it's kind of a little bit different. Before it would be like, 'oh, your child is sick,' now it's just like, 'can you distance yourself from me,'" said Lyza Arneson.

Others tell CBC News they appreciate the increased monitoring, as long as it's done respectfully.

"As long as it's kind and it's gentle and it's all for everyone's benefit, yeah I don't mind," said Carla Moore.

"Well, tattle telling is OK, you see what's happening on the beaches in Florida — it's ridiculous," said Vladin Simin, referring to photos that circulated online showing crowds flocking to the beaches in warm weather.

Context matters

Laidlaw said it's also important to know the context. 

She said she was recently shopping at a local grocery store, and did her best to try to keep her distance from others — especially the elderly — but she said it was nearly impossible to stay the recommended two metres apart from the other shoppers when picking out vegetables. 

So, she said someone could have snapped a photo right then and accused everyone of flagrantly disobeying social distancing rules — but she said that would have been incorrect.

"We need people to enforce things but we need a certain amount of forgiveness and civility and understanding in doing so."

She believes while everyone is trying their best in a very fluid situation, it's important to remember, tone and civility matter when navigating these difficult times.


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