Why Did a Student in Montreal Get Arrested for an Instagram Post?
The infringing artwork. Found via Statigram.
On Wednesday night, news broke that a 20-year-old “supporter of the student movement,” Jennifer Pawluck was arrested in Montreal for posting a picture to Instagram that she took of a graffiti wheat-paste illustration that showed Montreal’s police commander Ian Lafrenière with a bloody bullet hole in his forehead. According to the CBC, the image was thrown up on a brick wall in the city's Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood. And Jennifer Pawluck—not that this even matters—didn’t even draw the anticop graphic in the first place.
While Montreal does have a certain set of harsh laws in place designed to fine graffiti artists and the building owners who do not properly deal with graffiti on their buildings, those are laws set in place to keep Canada’s most Euorpean city looking clean and pretty. But the idea that someone who is walking past a controversial graffiti stencil, who then takes out their phone, grabs a photo, and publishes it to their Instagram account should be arrested is completely ridiculous. It also speaks to the level of fearful internet monitoring that’s clearly going on in Montreal right now. Pawluck has an April 17 hearing in court and will likely be charged with "uttering threats," or "criminal harrassment," according to her attorney.
Montreal’s political climate is heated, to say the least. That’s been clear for a while now, and things became even more intense once Anarchopanda got arrested. However, the standard that this anticop Instagram fiasco could set for police intervention, when it comes to social media, is a scary one; especially during times of social unrest and protest.
While the Canadian Supreme Court’s recent, nonunanimous, ruling to require a warrant before text messages are wiretapped is a small victory for the privacy of anyone with a cell phone and the internet, incidents like this do not predict a very bright future for privacy online. Plus, that ruling only applies to phones that do not have a password. Ontario’s Supreme Court recently granted police with a general warrant to look through any unprotected phone. So, clearly social networks are just a free-for-all, and everyone needs to put a password on their phones, especially if they’re full of anticop-graffiti photos.
Things in the US are even worse right now. The FBI has made it clear that simply getting a warrant to look through someone’s Gmail account, for example, is not good enough. They are now looking to spy on the internet in real time (instead of waiting months for a warrant to clear) and monitor the conversations that are occurring on the internet’s many social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even in-game conversations in Minecraft. There are countless networks through which to pass information online, that are owned by a variety of different companies, but the more legislation that gets passed to extend the surveillance capabilities of the authorities online will make those digital nooks and crannies less and less protected.
So where does that leave Jennifer Pawluck, the 20-year-old Montreal citizen who took a photo on Instagram and was subsequently arrested? A spokesperson for the Montreal police, Constable Dany Richer, told the CBC: “There are circumstances that surrounded the publication of this image, circumstances that we can’t reveal because it is still under investigation.”
But what circumstances could there be? She took a photo of some incendiary graffiti that ended up on Instagram through her cell phone camera. Jennifer is not the only one who posted the image, as any search on Instagram using the right tags will tell you, so why is this a punishable offense?
If I drew a picture of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings burning, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper running out in flames and an ambulance turned over on the lawn in front of an extinguished centennial flame—and then someone took a photo of it—would we both be sent to federal prison? This kind of censorship and police intervention is unacceptable and bewildering. Hopefully, somehow, this does not set a recurring precedent.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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