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Trial by tweet: heads drop in the basket without trial
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Brian GiesbrechtIf anyone doubted that the #MeToo movement has ushered in a revolution, the political execution of Patrick Brown should put those doubts to rest. As in all revolutions, not all the heads that fall into the basket deserve to be there – but the Madame Defarges of this world will gleefully stand by and watch.

(Madame Defarge is a fictional character in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities who gleefully knitted why heads rolled under “La Guillotine”.)

If one listens to a true believer, it doesn’t matter how many innocent heads roll, it’s all justified if the revolution has a noble purpose. A former NDP staffer voiced his support for the #MeToo movement on the Jan. 26 airing of CBC’s The Current in these words: “I want to see less nitpicking, less skepticism about individual claims. What’s important is the overall movement to put an end to the abuse of power of men over women.”

According to this fellow, the end justifies the means. If Brown replied that the behaviour didn’t happen as alleged or point to the probability that even if it did, it didn’t constitute a crime, it would not matter a whit to the true believers. This warped thinking seemed to make sense to Brown’s own staff and party. They abandoned him like rats deserting a ship.

The fact that this is happening in Canada should truly scare us. Our hard-won concepts like the presumption of innocence, due process and the law itself are being discarded in a heartbeat. Those concepts took a thousand years, and much blood, sweat and tears to acquire. The true believers want to give them up because some cases didn’t go the way they wanted. They hang their hats on the Jian Ghomeshi case.

Sexual assault cases are difficult for everyone concerned. They usually involve two people and no other direct witnesses. Also, they typically involve two very different interpretations of an event that left scars. Most judges and lawyers will tell you that they are extremely challenging and often heartbreaking. But they will also tell you that the conviction of an innocent person is their worst nightmare. The accused, as well as the accuser, must be treated fairly and with respect.

Are we really prepared to abandon our justice process and let people’s fate be decided by a tweet? Will we let the media replace the Supreme Court of Canada? Or let a person’s fate be decided by the vagaries of public opinion? Perhaps in the near future, the number of ‘likes’ one gets on social media will determine whether one survives or is sacrificed for the greater good. (The thumbs-up ‘like’ symbol was used in Roman Empire days to decide whether a hapless gladiator should live or die.)

We need to think this through. Yes, we’re happy to see the Harvey Weinsteins of this world get their comeuppance. But aren’t we a bit uneasy when we see someone like Brown brought to his knees by unnamed accusers in a case that may never go to court?

Now that the revolution is underway, we will see more Browns as well as Weinsteins. The Madame Defarges will be waiting to hear the sound of those heads dropping into the basket. The innocent as well as the guilty.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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