$1M lawsuit filed, hundreds of sexual misconduct allegations removed from Victims Voices Instagram
Regina law firm files $1 million lawsuit on behalf of Regina teacher accused of sexual assault on Instagram
One of the two women who run the victimsvoicesregina Instagram page says their lawyer advised them to remove hundreds of posts from anonymous accusers that name Regina men and allege sexual assault, harassment or abuse.
CBC has agreed not to name the woman, who is a survivor of sexual assault.
The woman was unaware of a $1 million lawsuit filed in Court of Queen's Bench earlier this month by a Regina teacher who was accused of sexual assault on the Instagram page. She said she received several warnings that men who had been named in posts were planning to sue them for libel — publishing a false statement that hurts a person's reputation — but the anonymous publishers had not yet received any formal legal notice.
Regina lawyers Sharon Fox and Madlin Lucyk of Nychuk & Company confirmed the law firm filed a statement of claim on August 10 on behalf of a Regina teacher seeking a million dollars in damages for the publication of "untrue and defamatory allegations of sexual assault arising from the Victims Voices of Regina Instagram account." The action is against Facebook, which owns Instagram, as well as not-yet-identified administrators of the Instagram page.
Fox said the firm is working with more than 10 other men seeking to make similar claims.
The woman said she pulled down the posts on August 25 because she couldn't risk being dragged into an expensive civil suit. She doesn't investigate the truth of posts and, if sued for defamation, she could be expected to prove their truth in court with evidence and witnesses.
"We have named businesses, and we have named individuals, and while that's an important part of the page, it does open us up to consequences," she said.
"We don't know who these people are and how much money they, or their dads, have."
She started the Instagram page, also known as Survivor's Stories Regina, in July in response to the numerous allegations of verbal sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour against mental health advocate and former Earls manager Jim Demeray, which came to light in a CBC News Investigation. Demeray said the allegations against him were "baseless and untrue." The Instagram page has since named several high-profile people, including a Regina city councillor, a musician, and leaders in the non-profit community.
Similar pages exist in many forms across Canada. They've been praised by many advocates for giving a voice to sexual assault survivors who lack faith in the criminal justice system.
I should receive an unequivocal apology and retraction.- Andrew Hitchcock, Regina lawyer
The Regina page didn't just share posts. It solicited stories through private messages and removed the anonymous accuser's name before publishing screen shots of the story online with the name of the accused and, often, his workplace. Going forward, the page will only allow people to include the initials of the person they're accusing and no information on where the person works.
The creator has already heard from many followers who feel angry that their post has been removed and that future posts won't name people.
"I understand the frustration that people must feel, not having that vindicated moment of having the person named, and held accountable," she said.
Cease and desist letter
The woman's concerns over legal action aren't unfounded.
Regina legal aid lawyer Andrew Hitchcock, who was identified in a post that accused him of sexual misconduct on a date, said he was falsely accused and has hired well-known defence lawyer Aaron Fox to take action against the publishers of the page.
"The accusations were false, and in fact, complete fiction," said Hitchcock in an email to CBC News. "I do not know why someone would wish to attack me in this way. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard for a defence lawyer.
"This experience brings home the essential nature of fair, due process of law. Without that due process I have been left with few options to refute an entirely anonymous, undated accusation," he said.
Hitchcock isn't satisfied with the removal of posts from the Instagram page on Aug. 25.
"While this is a relief ... a malicious lie was posted about me that was seen by thousands of people," he said. "I should receive an unequivocal apology and retraction and anonymous, public accusations should not be permitted to continue in a liberal democracy."
Hitchcock is not certain yet how damaging this will be to him and his career, but said he will continue his work within the justice system.
Like the Regina teacher's legal team, Hitchcock's team is having a tough time serving the anonymous publishers.
Earlier this week, his defence lawyer Aaron Fox sent a cease and desist letter to the woman Fox's law firm believed was behind the Instagram page.
The problem is, they identified the wrong woman.
"A witch hunt"
Regina businesswoman Tara Osipoff received a letter written Aug. 26 from Fox, on behalf of Hitchcock, that said the law firm had been "provided information through multiple sources" that Osipoff and her company, Ayden Creative, make and control posts on the Instagram page.
"I find it ironic, really. I'm being falsely accused by someone who claims they are being falsely accused," Osipoff said.
Osipoff is a vocal advocate for women's rights in Regina and believes that's why she was targeted. She said it underscores the lack of strong voices on issues of sexual harassment and assault.
"I want a better Regina where women feel safe, where there are more women leaders, where women can safely advocate for other women without worrying there will be a witch hunt," she said.
Fox said he could not comment on the cease and desist letter.
"It was a private communication and I am surprised that the recipient decided to disclose it to the media," he said.
The letter states that the publisher of the Instagram page is liable for damages to Hitchcock and others for information posted that is untrue.
"The most basic journalistic standards have not been adhered to," the letter said.
It demands that Osipoff remove the post, issue a public retraction and apology, and preserve any evidence about the person who made the allegation. Finally, it said Osipoff would be "required to disclose the names of the individuals who have provided the false information to share online."
Anonymous allegations are 'high risk'
Catherine Willson is a civil litigator in Toronto who published an article titled Social Media & Defamation – Be Careful What You Post From Behind A Screen!
"If the comments are true, even if it's an ugly truth, it's not defamatory," said Willson, who was not speaking about any specific allegations.
She said many people who post false accusations online are naive about the potential legal consequences.
"I want them to know that it could be very expensive for them... It's not a question of a simple apology. And it's not $5,000 or $10,000 [in damages], it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said.
"I don't know how an account owner on Instagram who solicits these stories can in any way ascertain truth. So it's a high risk," she said, adding that a person who publishes on social media in this way could be subject to the same standards of due diligence as traditional media outlets.
Instagram allows people to report defamatory posts online. Willson noted that unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada does not protect online platforms such as Facebook and Instagram from defamation suits.
However, Willson said it's very difficult for people who feel they were defamed to take civil action against anonymous publishers.
Willson said she is sympathetic to women who feel they've been failed by the criminal justice system, but that she doesn't believe a social media page that names and shames people is an appropriate alternative.
"Just allowing every victim, or person who claims to be a victim, to publicly name names and point fingers could lead to a different kind of injustice, so there has to be a better way," she said.
The woman who controls the Victims Voices Regina Instagram page is hopeful that people will continue to share their stories and find compassion and healing. She also hopes the page can be a resource to help people advocate for change to stop sexual assault and harassment.
Tara Osipoff is calling for more people to step up and speak out.
"I've been advised by many business people that it's best to stay silent in regards to the #MeToo movement in Regina. We obviously have a long way to go when people of this city view it as bad for business to be advocating for women."