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Can sharing graphic videos of death be punishable? B.C. lawyers weigh in

It's time the law adapts to evolving technology, says one B.C. lawyer.

A graphic and disturbing video of a man being stabbed to death in Vancouver was posted on social media this week, prompting concerns about how to remove the video.

Paul Schmidt, 37, moved to Vancouver from Kelowna a few years ago and was stabbed after a brief altercation with a stranger outside a Starbucks at 5:40 p.m. on Sunday.

His mother has seen the video that was posted on social media and calls it disturbing

"His wife and daughter witnessed the whole thing. The most disturbing thing is that nobody tried to help, nobody called 911, and nobody called the police. They just sat and watched. I can't get my head around it," said Kathy Schmidt.

She claims her son was killed after asking the individual to stop vaping near the stroller his child was in. 

A GoFundMe fundraiser for Schmidt asks people to respect the family’s wishes and “not circulate the horrific video footage that has been shared on social media.”

Vancouver's mayor and Vancouver police issued a similar request.

“Can there be anything more disgusting and loathsome than seeing a video posted of the stabbing?” says Howard Chow, deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department. "Aside from impacting evidence, have you considered the impact on the victim’s family and friends?”

Mayor Ken Sim said it was an awful and tragic story to hear about and “nobody should ever feel unsafe walking around our city.”

“Out of respect for them and their loss, please refrain from sharing graphic images or videos of the incident on social media,” said Sim.

Multiple media outlets have decided not to share the video. 

“We are encouraging people not to share that video,” says VPD's Sgt. Steve Addison. "If you’ve got video, if you are a bystander, if you are a witness, please come forward and speak to our investigators, provide it to our investigators.”

Twitter’s own policy states sharing excessively gruesome images or videos, or sharing media depicting a deceased individual for sadistic purposes is also not permitted. 

"Out of respect for the deceased and those impacted by their death, as well as to decrease the impact of unintended exposure to graphic media, we may ask you to remove images and videos that depict the death of an identifiable person,” states Twitter’s website.

Law needs to adapt to advancing technology

B.C.-based criminal lawyer Sarah Leamon says the incident highlights a gap in the legal system. 

"I think that myself, like many other viewers who saw this video, was just absolutely shocked. It's an extremely graphic video and it's something that definitely stays with people after they've seen it,” Leamon tells Glacier Media.

From a criminal perspective, she says it’s difficult to find a law that would address the posting of the video.

“It, of course, gives rise to the question of whether or not we should be considering doing something to fill in what is perceived to be an obvious gap in our judicial system,” she says.

Leamon adds the law has not adapted to advancing technology.

“The law is quite slow when it comes to adapting to advances in technology, and particularly so given how prevalent social media is, so it might be due time for the law to catch up in this regard,” she says, noting an individual could consider another legal avenue.

"It's important to keep in mind that a criminal action doesn't necessarily preclude somebody from also advancing a civil claim as well. There are different standards of proof in each of those types of proceedings, of course, with the criminal standard being the highest burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," she says. 

B.C civil litigation lawyer Erik Magraken says the right thing to do is for the individual to take down the video.

“The family does not want this video up there. And I think there’s very good reason to respect the family’s wishes, but morals and the law don’t always line up,” he says.

Taking the legal route of getting the video removed would be difficult, he tells Glacier Media.

“B.C. has privacy legislation. The family can sue, saying this is a violation of their privacy. But that’s an uphill battle, probably an unsuccessful battle,” said Magraken, noting the privacy act does not survive death and cannot be applied to the deceased.

“A dead person has no right to say their privacy has been violated, so that in and of itself is a problem. The family themselves can say their privacy has been violated, but this incident occurred in a public setting.” 

Legally, said Magraken, the Schmidt family's privacy has probably not been violated, despite the fact that “this is something that they have very good grounds to not want shared, in perpetuity on the internet.”

Schmidt’s mother pleads with the people who posted the video to take it down.

“It’s disgusting, we want it down,” she says. “Let us grieve. Have some respect.”

Twitter's policy, which was updated in January 2023, states reports can be submitted and Twitter may permanently suspend an account if the majority of one's activity on Twitter is sharing this type of media. As of publication time, the video of the Starbucks stabbing remains on Twitter, three days after it was posted.

Glacier Media has confirmed that family and friends spent all day Monday flagging videos posted to social media so they could be removed. 

In a statement to Glacier Media, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, states it has removed the video and has taken steps to prevent it from being uploaded again.

Vancouver police arrested Inderdeep Singh Gosal, 32, shortly after the altercation, and he has since been charged with second-degree murder.

With a file from Castanet