Publication ban is pointless

Canning Parsons

Glen Canning (left) and Leah Parsons have fought to keep their daughter’s name alive.

One of the beauties of being a freelancer is that I don’t have to worry about consulting lawyers or publishers, I can just follow my gut and do what a journalist is supposed to do.

To paraphrase the Mr. Dooley character of American humorist Finley Peter Dunne: It’s the job of journalists to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Sometimes, you get the opportunity to do both and when those opportunities arise, you must seize them. Yesterday, more than any other day, it was important to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name.

The guilty plea of one of the accused was validation for her and her family. Any journalist with a sense of public good would recognize that you’d need to link yesterday’s development back to April 2013, when the whole world knew her name and the eyes of the world were on Nova Scotia because of the failure of our justice system to lay any charges.

There was a clear purpose to my post and I’m not content to wait for politicians to change the law. I’m going to point out its flaws, why it needs to be amended, and why it should not apply in this case. I also consulted with Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents – Leah Parsons and Glen Canning — and got a blessing from both of them to break the ban.

Also, reading the judge’s decision from May gave me confidence that it was a pretty safe path if I chose my steps carefully. I was not flouting it just for the sake of flouting it. Former colleague Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College, suggested in a Facebook discussion that “there’s a danger when we start violating bans because we believe it’s wrong in one particular instance.”

“What if another reporter decides to name an alleged rape victim, or a child abuse victim because they think it’s justified. Do we get to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t? And, given that everyone already knows who the victim is in this case, is it really necessary to break the ban to make the argument it is wrong here, or to write in a way that makes the connections for the reader without specifically naming the victim?”

In this case, I take to heart the comments made by Judge Jamie Campbell when he wrote in his decision: “It’s a ban that everyone wants, just not in this case.”

To see Judge Campbell’s decision, click here.

Clearly, it’s a good law, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. A judge, our director of public prosecutions, and our Attorney General had an opportunity to fix that, but none took the opportunities available to them for various reasons. You say that “everyone” knows her name, but I think that only those closely connected to the case would make the crucial connection if not for the efforts of the victim’s parents — Glen Canning and Leah Parsons — who have been breaking the ban.

I’m not claiming the right for me or any other journalist to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t. But remember, both of Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the ban and the Crown fought it, too. Also, when the Crown reviews a complaint — if there is one — they will consider the intent of Parliament in drafting the law, the wishes of the parents, and whether the public interest is served in prosecuting.

Precisely the things that I considered before writing the post.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.

Why?

Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

Trashing the litterbugs

Tim_hortons_cup_trash

 

 

My daughter was only about four years old when we were out at a park and she noticed some litter on the ground.

“Oh, look,” she said. “Somebody forgot their garbage.”

We produce way more than our share of garbage in North America that the least we can do of it is properly dispose of it. When I was a kid, we were taught that littering was bad. Then, we tried to add another layer of responsibility on top of that and it seems like the North American brain short-circuited.

“Recycle and dispose of my garbage? But I’ve got TV shows to watch,” I imagine the modern-day neanderthal saying.

We live in a society with too many lazy slobs and not enough people who care. The evidence is overwhelming. Yesterday, my son took part in “Clean up to win,” a neighbourhood clean-up that coincides with the end of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win contest. In about three hours, one person picked up more than 500 empty cups that had been discarded in Spryfield. He was not alone, many others from the Adventure Earth Centre in Halifax, who are part of HEAT (Helping the Earth by Acting Together) are participating in the clean-up. Tonight, those who participate get to enter their name into a draw for prizes. To be fair, there was some other garbage from a local McDonald’s, but about two-thirds of it originated from Tim Hortons.

This is the kind of contest we need. One that helps prevent litter and waste, rather than causing it.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

How to avoid car-pedestrian accidents

We here at the Department of Common Sense are alarmed at the high number of car-pedestrian accidents in Halifax.

There is a lot of finger-pointing and, if blame were to be meted out, it would be assigned equally as both motorists and pedestrians are to blame. The finger-pointing is counter-productive, though, so we think it’s best to focus on solutions.

To my fellow pedestrians: When you’re lying in a hospital bed, it doesn’t make you feel any better to have been right that you had the right of way. I walk more than I drive, but when I walk, I always make sure that I have made eye contact with the driver and that I see a noticeable slowing down before I cross. There have been many times that this has made me a spectator to an inattentive motorist zooming in front of me, and, while it is frustrating, it is painless.

On the rare occasion that I drive, I always make an effort to look at the pedestrian and make a gesture to let them know that I’ve seen them. To drivers: stay off your cellphone, don’t put makeup on in the car, and for God’s sake keep your dogs off your lap. You’re driving a big hunk of metal and your job is do it safely. There are pedestrians out and about. Keep an eye out for them.

In 29 years of driving and 40 years as a pedestrian, this simple technique has prevented car-pedestrian accidents involving yours truly. (Knock on wood)

This is a public service message from the Department of Common Sense.

Branding Halifax: not exactly as advertised

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is inviting citizens of Halifax Regional Municipality to define our city. It’s very kind of him to attempt to engage citizens, but I fear the focus on words – not actions – might prevent us from achieving the stated goal: branding Halifax.

With the help of a marketing company, there is a social media campaign that is prompting people to put on their thinking tuques and come up with a new slogan for the city. In many respects though, it’s like asking Rumpelstiltskin to turn straw into gold instead of loading up your rucksack and heading for the hills to pan for gold.

Attempting to conjure up a brand through a clever marketing campaign might generate buzz, but I doubt it will lead to a true, lasting brand. You forge a brand by consistently acting a certain way over time.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, a brand is sort of like Christmas.

“It comes without packages, boxes or bags!”

“Maybe branding doesn’t come from a store.”

“Maybe branding … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

A public relations firm can help promote a brand, but in HRM’s case, defining it is up to the government and the citizenry. The government can shape a brand by the way it governs and citizens can do so by the way we live.

If you want to define Halifax, don’t focus on the witty bon mots and pithy slogans – especially if they are hollow words.

If you must have a slogan, make them hallowed words and act accordingly: smartly, openly, honestly and consistently.

Persnickety parking enforcer wins Dick Clod Award

Parking ticket issued at 4:05 p.m. on New Year's Eve when there was little traffic on Lower Water Street in Halifax.

Parking ticket issued at 4:05 p.m. on New Year’s Eve when there was little traffic on Lower Water Street in Halifax.

It’s New Year’s Eve in Halifax. Across the street from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a four-door sedan is parked illegally for five whole minutes.

Miraculously, it has not impeded traffic on Lower Water Street, but it’s only a matter of time before it chokes off this major artery and prevents the city’s workforce from getting home to ring in the New Year.

Josh Richter, Badge #50085, is walking the beat for Parking Enforcement Division H and he’s fighting the bitter December cold as he takes out his pen to issue a parking ticket. Not content with merely giving this scofflaw a $25 fine, he calls for tow-truck support. This parked car is a serious problem that must be dealt with quickly because there are a lot of people trying to get home from work at 4:05 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

A mother and two small children emerge from the museum just in time to stop their car from being towed away. Our diligent parking enforcer briefly regains his wits and halts the towing process so the trio is not stranded downtown — but the $25 parking ticket stands.

Thank goodness for parking enforcers like Josh Richter, who are so well-endowed with common sense that they assiduously enforce parking bylaws even when it’s not necessary and keep our fair city safe from the scourge of parked cars.

For sticking to the letter of the law and enforcing parking regulations even when it does no civic good, Josh Richter earns the 2013 Dick Clod Award – a dubious honour given to those who are persnickety without peer.

Nominations for the 2014 award are open. Please send them in.

My Christmas gift to the Navy

An open letter to Capt. Angus Topshee, Commander of CFB Halifax:

Capt. Topshee,

I heard on the radio this morning that you have a parking problem at CFB Halifax with 7,000 employees looking to park on the base and only 3,500 spots. (See link for CBC story.)

As a public service to you, and as a concerned taxpayer and citizen of this country, I would like to help you. I also pride myself in providing common sense solutions to problems and, since it is the Christmas season, I am providing this advice to you free of charge so that you won’t have to spend any money on consultants. They can be quite costly and consultants usually just end up using a bunch of buzzwords in a report that gathers dust on a shelf.

So, without further ado, here are some suggestions to solve the parking problem at CFB Halifax. I realize that not all employees work the same shift, but there are enough of them that work similar hours that some, or all, of the following suggestions will work.

  1. Buy some lots at three locations in the city (Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford/Sackville) or use existing DND property to create park-and-ride lots. Provide buses from these lots to CFB Halifax. Commissionaires could supervise these lots to ensure that vehicles and their contents would be safe during the work day. A survey of employees and getting their postal codes would help identify the best places to build these lots.
  2. Explore the possibility of similar lots in waterfront areas and consider using water taxis or ferries to bring navy personnel to work.
  3. Set up a system whereby employees who live near each other can carpool. Create a bulletin board or message board — online or offline — to help people find a ride.

Doing this would alleviate the parking problem and reduce traffic congestion on the peninsula and on the bridges.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and wish you all the best in finding a fair, economical, and sensible solution to your parking problem.

Kind regards,

Ryan Van Horne

Department of Common Sense

Packed house on opening day

Photo by Devaan Ingraham / www.devaaningraham.com

Temptress! Sophia Smart (Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons) turns on the charm and Richard Clod (Rob McIntyre) is sure it is against regulations in this scene from Department of Common Sense. Photo by Devaan Ingraham

As a playwright, your job is done before rehearsals begin and long before the curtain rises on a play. When it’s your first play, though, the work is never done. The cast of Department of Common Sense have put so much sweat and toil into this play that they deserve an audience to give them a little extra energy. That’s where my new role of producer comes into play because one of my responsibilities in that role is publicity.

We had great media coverage leading up to our first performance as part of the 23rd Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax, and I was delighted to see a packed house for the cast. It was a bit of a steam bath at DANSpace — one audience member quipped it would be great for hot yoga — but the cast persevered and delivered a great show that people enjoyed. It was hot, not as hot as the picture of Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons (above), but still hot. Kudos to my friend Devaan Ingraham for this great production still.

We learned after the show that Stephen Cooke of The Chronicle Herald attended the play. I waited anxiously for the review — the first time a newspaper had reviewed my play — and I celebrated with a beer after I read this.

I think the cast, and our director Nick Jupp, should take another bow.

Department of Common Sense

DCS-production still-6

When I used to work in government, I would often joke about ridiculous ideas or policies needing to be vetted by the Department of Common Sense. No such department exists — unfortunately — except in my first play.

I took one of my favourite stories from my time in government and I turned it into a play. When I would go to parties and tell this story, people’s jaws would drop, but, as absurd as it was, they did believe it because governments and bureaucrats can do some pretty stupid things. Sometimes, it can be enough to make you want a stiff drink, like the character of Adele Courage above in a scene from the play.

I took that story and built a play around it. It’s a fictional tale of a straight-talking, tequila-sipping government minister who gets two whip-smart women on his staff to take on a persnickety bureaucrat in a battle of wills and wits.

It will make you shake your head in dismay, nod your head in understanding, or seethe with anger. It might make you do all three, but it is sure to make you laugh. We have a fabulous cast including Lianne Perry, Mark Adam, Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, Rob McIntyre, Neil Van Horne and Fiona MacKinnon. Nick Jupp did a great job as our director and had a hand in the development of the script when he acted as a dramaturge for me when I took part in the Theatre Arts Guild’s inaugural Playwrights’ Festival.

To learn more about my play, check out this link to the play’s blog or see our Facebook page.

It will be on stage for six shows during the 23rd Atlantic Fringe Festival. Check out the Atlantic Fringe and support local theatre. Hope you enjoy the show.

Is racism to blame in Alehouse complaint?

I was at the Alehouse last week for a pint. There was a bouncer working at the door who was of African heritage and had the same colour of skin that Peter Gilpin has.

Peter Gilpin is a man who filed a human rights complaint against the Alehouse, saying that they refused to let him into the downtown bar because he was black. See story here.

When I was younger, I was refused service at bars and in liquor stores. The most noticeable difference is that I am caucasian and so the reason for me being denied service was for failing to provide valid identification. Another big difference was my age; I was younger than Mr. Gilpin, who was 33 at the time of the incident. Nova Scotia has very strict liquor laws and there is intense scrutiny on bars to make sure they uphold them. If they don’t, they face costly penalties.

I’m not denying that racism has existed in Nova Scotia and that it continues to exist. In fact, I find this line in the CBC story to be somewhat comical: “The hearing has accepted a ground-breaking report that indicates Nova Scotia has a racism problem.”

What? Really? Who funded that report, the No Shit, Sherlock Institute?

I supposed I shouldn’t be so glib about that. There are actually people who deny that racism exists. The first step in solving a problem is getting people to realize that it exists. Getting a sense of the scope of the problem is also helpful.

Whenever an employee feels pressure to follow rules, it can sometimes seem unkind or unfair to the person that is affected.

About a year ago, I was walking up Quinpool Road toward a bus stop that was not the one at which I regularly boarded the bus. When the bus drove past me, I wondered what was going on. I looked up at the sign and realized that recent changes to the route had eliminated this stop. Even though the bus driver was mired in rush-hour traffic, he drove past me and stopped about 20 feet up the road.

When I walked up to the stopped bus and knocked on the door to see if the bus driver would let me in, he would not. The bus driver, who was an African Nova Scotian, just shook his head and drove off when traffic started to move.

Traffic was so heavy that I was able to walk a few blocks up the road to the next stop and board the bus. When I asked the driver why he didn’t let me on earlier, he told me that he is not allowed to stop the bus and let passengers board at unmarked stops.

He was just following the rules and I did not think that he was treating me any differently because I was white.

With a history of racism against black people, it is easy to understand how Mr. Gilpin can make the assumption that his race was the reason he wasn’t allowed in to the Alehouse.

Racism exists, it is ugly, and I hate it. I hate it for the injustices that it has caused and continues to cause.

Even though I have never been a victim of racism, it does affect me directly. It has led to distrust and resentment that prevents racial harmony.

Was Mr. Gilpin a victim of racism or a victim of strict liquor laws and their draconian enforcement?

Given the facts and circumstances, I would say the latter, but it’s easy to see how even a youthful-looking 33-year-old man could think otherwise.

If I were the owner of the bar, I would have a special African Heritage night with live music and invite Mr. Gilpin and his friends to come down for a meal and a pint on the house.

This, more than any ruling from a human rights commission, would work to improve racial harmony in Nova Scotia.