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Appeal court upholds acquittal of man who yelled obscenity at TV reporter

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Tara Bradbury

The Telegram

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

@tara_bradbury

Yelling a sexist slur at a female TV reporter was a “vile and loathsome” action that should be severely denounced, a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge ruled this week, but, at least in one particular circumstance, it did not warrant a criminal charge of causing a disturbance.

Justice Garrett Handrigan dismissed the Crown’s appeal of an acquittal for Justin Denis Penton, who was cleared of the charge in February 2018.

Handrigan sided with the original judge, saying while Penton’s actions were despicable, they didn’t meet the criteria for the specific criminal charge.

Penton was charged after he yelled a slur at then-NTV news reporter Heather Gillis as she was on a field assignment the previous year.

Gillis had just finished interviewing then-St. John’s city councillor Danny Breen, who is now mayor, at the Robin Hood Bay landfill facility and was asking some off-camera follow-up questions when Penton drove by in his pickup. As he passed by, he yelled “F--- her in the p---y!” — a version of a slur first seen in a series of YouTube videos in 2014.

Female reporters across the continent have been subjected to the phrase being yelled at them from passersby ever since. Many of the incidents have been caught on camera. In some cases in Canada, the person yelling the phrase has lost their job or been criminally charged as a result.

Gillis snapped a photo of Penton’s licence plate as he drove away and posted it on Twitter. The RNC later contacted her and told her the incident might amount to a crime.

Penton acknowledged he had yelled the phrase at Gillis and apologized for it when he was visited by the police, but pleaded not guilty in court to a charge of disturbing the peace.

“I do not want to diminish the seriousness of Mr. Penton’s behaviour in any way by these comments,” Handrigan stated in his written decision. “His actions were vile and loathsome and they should be severely denounced. But they did not cause more than a transitory interference with the work Ms. Gillis was doing with Mr. Breen and they did not affecrt Ms. Gillis or Mr. Breen beyond the emotional upset and hurt that each expressed. Mr. Penton did not cause a significant interference for either of the persons to whom he directed his utterance or for any other member of the public in the place where he shouted them.”

Handrigan agreed with the trial judge in that in a different situation with different circumstances, Penton’s behaviour could have resulted in a conviction.

Prosecutor Richard Deveau had argued on appeal that the momentary disruption caused by Penton had derailed Gillis’ conversation with Breen and the trial judge had not placed enough weight on the fact that she was working at the time, and was not engaging in a casual conversation.

Defence lawyer Rosellen Sullivan said while she believed Gillis had been rightly fed up and had done the appropriate thing by stopping the conversation to snap a photo of Penton’s licence plate, she had derailed her own work by doing so. Penton’s actions didn’t meet the elements of a criminal disturbance in that they hadn’t interfered with the ordinary use of a space.

“If the public was somehow interrupted from using the dump, that would qualify,” Sullivan submitted.

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