Discharge for woman who hit protester

Victim was part of anti-Church of Scientology demonstration

The Chronicle Herald, Canada/July 21, 2010

A woman who got into an argument with protesters near a Church of Scientology building in Halifax and punched one of them in the face was given a conditional discharge Tuesday.

Nicole Cassandra Andersen's behaviour on Sept. 19, 2009, was "entirely inappropriate," Judge Marc Chisholm said in Halifax provincial court during her sentencing hearing on a charge of assault.

"The protesters were engaging in appropriate and lawful protest of an organization in a manner that is well within their rights as citizens," Chisholm said.

"It was Ms. Andersen's responsibility that this matter escalated, resulting in an assault."

But the judge said he was satisfied that a conditional discharge, which would allow Andersen to avoid having a criminal record for violence and to stay employed as a personal-care worker, would not be contrary to the public interest.

He placed the 40-year-old Halifax woman on probation for a year, with conditions that she not have any contact with victim Chris Salsman or possess any weapons. She also has to receive counselling for mental health and anger management, if directed to do so by her probation supervisor.

Masked protesters holding a banner were demonstrating across the street from the Scientology Life Improvement Centre on Dutch Village Road at about 12:30 p.m. when Andersen walked up and started shouting and cursing at them. She told them they were promoting hatred and were cowards for not showing their faces.

Andersen thrust her fingers toward Salsman's face. He responded by putting his hand near her face.

She then struck Salsman twice. The second blow caused a small cut near his right eye.

Andersen called 911 right away to report herself and waited at the scene until Halifax Regional Police arrived.

Defence lawyer Peter Dostal said his client "was having a very difficult day" on Sept. 19 because of her mental health issues.

"She was walking down the street . . . and by happenstance ran into the protesters," Dostal said.

"In retrospect, Ms. Andersen should have walked away from this, and certainly wishes she would have done that."

The demonstrators captured the altercation on video, which they posted on YouTube after Andersen pleaded guilty in May.

More than 12,000 people have viewed the video on the website, Dostal said. He said Andersen has been subjected to vicious comments online and is honked at by motorists as she walks to and from her home on Dutch Village Road.

The judge watched a portion of the video in court Tuesday.

Andersen admitted the footage was "pretty ugly" and said she was ashamed of her actions.

"I'm not a violent person," she told the court.

"I broke the law. I understand that and that's why I did plead guilty. But I really feel as though I've been punished every moment since I walked away from that group of people that day."

After sitting down on the prisoners bench, Andersen asked if she could say one more thing.

"I am not a Scientologist," she said. "Not that I have anything against anyone who chooses to do anything with their lives, but I am not, and it had nothing to do with that moment."

The judge said he accepted that Andersen had nothing to do with the church.

Crown attorney Jennifer MacLellan opposed the defence's request for a discharge, saying Andersen exhibited "aggressive, belligerent" behaviour and punched Salsman with a great deal of force.

"This is probably something people should know in the future if they choose to hire her, not something she can hide," the prosecutor said of the assault.

Salsman, in an interview with The Chronicle Herald in May, said he belongs to an online movement called Anonymous, which holds protests against the Church of Scientology around the world.

In Halifax, small protests, typically involving five to 10 people, are held about once a month. Protesters, some of whom are former Church of Scientology members, wear masks to protect their identities because of a fear of reprisal, Salsman said.

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