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Instagram interrogation. Are authorities taking social media too far?

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A 20-year-old student named Jennifer Pawluck was wandering through Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood last week, where she lives. She saw a bit of anti-police graffiti on a wall, took a photo, posted it to Instagram and was then paid a visit by City of Montreal police, flashing a warrant for the crime of uttering threats. They interrogated her for over three hours and released her.

The warrant alleged that a threat had been made to Commander Ian Lafrenière, whose face (with a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead) appears in the graffiti, and that he had reason to fear for his safety as a result of the Instagram post.

Ian Lafrenière is a police spokesman who frequently worked the PR beat for Montreal’s police force last spring during the famous Printemps d’Érable (Maple Spring), appearing every day in the media to explain the rationale for the police department’s crowd control tactics, which include kettling and the use of percussion grenades. Being the public face of authority during a time of unrest placed Lafreniére squarely in the sights of francophone students, who constituted the majority of last spring’s protest movement. His face had become a meme.

“I do not even know who he is, Ian Lafrenière,” said Pawluck after being released by police. “I was walking around the neighborhood. My friend told me to look and I took a photo of it,” she said. “I never made any threat or anything, so I don’t really regret it. They’re the ones who freaked out.” A trial date has been set for April 17th. In the meantime, Pawluck is not allowed within one kilometre of police headquarters, or to communicate with Lafrenière.

With the rise of social media, you don’t have to be very conspiracy minded to worry that your online self is being studied for signs of wrongdoing. You may also believe that if you keep your nose clean, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Indeed, Jennifer Pawluck was known to police as a regular protestor with a vigorous online presence, which she used to denounce police tactics. “There are circumstances that surrounded the publication of this image, circumstances that we can’t reveal because it is still under investigation,” said police spokesman, Constable Dany Richer.

On the other hand, it might also worry you that the police dedicate time and resources to vindictively pursuing otherwise lawful activists, making an example of one of them for the sake of sending a message to student protestors in general. In this case, “uttering threats” has a technologically enhanced meaning from what you assume it means: vocalizing a threat so that a person fears for his or her safety.

Montreal criminal defense attorney Eric Sutton says, “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.” On April 17th, the Crown will have to prove that Lafrenière had plausible concern to fear for his safety because of the Instagram posting. The result of this case will have consequences for social media.

Elsewhere, the New York City Police Department is already dedicating resources to a Facial Recognition Unit, which scans Facebook and Instagram to track lawbreakers. Social media has flooded the Vancouver police with tips regarding the infamous Stanley Cup riots, resulting in several arrests. Much of the evidence gathered in the recent high-profile rape case in Steubenville, Ohio was gathered from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of those involved.

Like it or not, we are entering a new law enforcement era that reorders the use of social media tools, with both great potential and great risk. Ultimately, it will fall upon juries and judges to determine how wide the chasm is between rape and provocative amateur photography.

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