The simple solution to publication ban in Rehtaeh Parsons case

I appreciated the comments from the caller.
When I decided to break the publication ban, I did so despite the fact that some people would accuse me of doing it for publicity reasons. Anybody who thought — or still thinks — that I did this for publicity reasons didn’t think it through.
I am putting myself at risk of being charged with a criminal offence. There is no doubt in my mind that I am breaking the law. My only saving grace is that it is not in the public interest to prosecute me, just as it’s not in the public interest to prosecute the others who have violated the ban. In addition, the police would also have to charge Glen Canning and Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s parents, and that would be a public relations disaster.
If there was so much to be gained from this, why has no other media outlet or journalist in Canada broken the ban? For four months, the opportunity was there and no one took it.
More importantly, there is a simple solution to the publication ban. It doesn’t require Parliament to change this law, which is a good law. It will simply allow people to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name without restrictions.
The solution, described in my post on Oct. 22, lies with our Attorney General and Justice Minister. Let your MLA know and, more importantly, let a member of Nova Scotia’s Liberal government know what you think about this case.

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Lawyer David Fraser pans publication ban in Rehtaeh Parsons case

David Fraser is absolutely right. It’s time to end this discussion about the publication ban and shift our focus back to the more important discussions we need to have about cyber-bullying, sexual consent, suicide prevention, and accountability for public officials.
Justice might never come for Rehtaeh Parsons, but at least we can use her memory to learn some valuable lessons and help inform some important discussions.

Accused in Rehtaeh Parsons case set free

rehtaeh parsons

The boy who took the picture used to shame Rehtaeh Parsons was set free today and won’t spend a day in jail.

The accused, now 20, pleaded guilty in September to production of child pornography. He took a picture of Rehtaeh Parsons and his co-accused. Parsons was puking out a window while the other boy mugged for the camera and gave a thumbs-up sign. Despite admitting his guilt, he won’t go to jail and will have 12 months to meet certain conditions. If he meets them, he will receive a conditional discharge. He will not be put on probation.

Some will say this is a travesty of justice, but Glen Canning – Rehtaeh’s dad – said there won’t be justice until there are charges of sexual assault in the case.

The most telling moment of today’s sentencing came when Judge Greg Lenehan said the 20-year-old Eastern Shore man who took the picture should have known better and told him to consider what he would have wanted someone else to do if it was his sister being violated while she was puking out the window.

“The image you took is an example of the objectification of girls and women,” Lenehan said to him.

The accused shifted uncomfortably on the bench and looked nervous. Then muscles on his face twitched as he seemed to realize the cruelty of what he did.

Lenehan told him he “should never forget the promising, vibrant young life that was eventually destroyed by his choice to record an act of sexual degradation.”

“You did, in a few seconds, set in motion a series of events that led to a great deal of shame, humiliation, anger, despair, anguish, loss, hurt, and destruction for Ms. Parsons, her family, you, your family, and for the entire community.”

Lenehan told him the moment he captured on camera was “not a trophy moment, but that is certainly what it was portrayed as.”

In the era of cellphones when people seem to document everything, this was not a moment to be documented, the judge said.

Despite the tragic impact of the accused’s actions, Lenehan said he had to take into consideration the prime purpose of Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, which emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The accused, who was 17 at the time of the incident three years ago, has already shown signs of doing that.

“I accept that he is genuinely remorseful. I think he is quite sickened by the realization that his decision eventually led Rehtaeh Parsons to fall into the deep dark hole of despair from which she could not extricate herself. His actions led to a series of events that eventually drained her of her very essence.”

The accused has been suffering from anxiety and insomnia since the death of Rehtaeh Parsons in April 2013. Lenehan said the accused’s confession to police in August 2013 and his guilty plea on Sept. 22 are all factors that bode well for his rehabilitation. He has a full-time job, has not been in trouble with the law since the incident, nor was he ever in trouble with the law before that.

“This is a very difficult sentencing,” Lenehan said. “Nothing I can do can compensate for her tragic loss of life. There is no measure that could ever properly reflect her value.”

Despite the public calls for revenge, he stressed youth court is “not a court of retribution” and so gave the youth a conditional discharge while imposing some conditions. The accused must seek counselling for 12 months, provide a DNA sample, and write an apology to Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents.

“You are also required to locate and attend, successfully complete a course on sexual harassment,” Lenehan said. “It’s vitally important that you understand how you can interact and treat all females as you go forward.”

“I do not want to hamstring you. I do want to encourage you to become a productive member of society. I want you to be the type of young man that if you ever see somebody humiliating or treating a girl or a woman in any fashion that would call into question their dignity or worth, that you would not stand by and be an observer; that you would be the type of person that would say ‘This needs to stop’ and you would stop it.”

The other accused in this case will stand trial on distribution of child pornography charges on Nov. 24. His father was in court watching today’s proceedings.

Time for Nova Scotia’s Attorney General to step up

Landry Herschorn copy

Director of Public Prosecutions Martin Herschorn (left) and former Justice Minister Ross Landry.

Last fall, Nova Scotia’s Liberal government coasted to an easy electoral victory and among their many promises was a commitment to spend $6 million during a three-year span to boost funding to sexual assault support centres and create a prevention strategy.

Seven months after taking power, Lena Metlege Diab, the Liberal government’s Justice Minister and Attorney General, had an opportunity to do something to prevent sexual assault and failed to do it.

Although there have been no charges of sexual assault in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, it has been alleged that sexual assault took place. The definition of sexual consent is integral to the case and there is a great opportunity to educate people about this.

In light of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, keeping her name in a public discussion about sexual consent and cyberbullying — and allowing the media to use her name without restriction — would serve a clear public benefit to women, men, girls, and boys.

As the Attorney General, Metlege Diab has the power to order the Public Prosecution Service to not prosecute any media that violate the publication ban in this case. It says so right in the Public Prosecutions Act.

Power and duties of Attorney General:

6 The Attorney General is the minister responsible for the prosecution service and is accountable to the Assembly for all prosecutions to which this Act applies and

(a) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue general instructions or guidelines in respect of all prosecutions, or a class of prosecutions, to the prosecution service … (and)

(b) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue instructions or guidelines in a particular prosecution …

So, given that Metlege Diab has the power, it is disappointing that she wouldn’t exercise it in the Rehtaeh Parsons case. Furthermore, it is odd that if she is the elected person who must answer to the Legislative Assembly, and ultimately the people of this province, that she would let a bureaucrat speak on her behalf. That’s what she did when she let Martin Herschorn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, respond to letters from Nancy Rubin, a lawyer representing the media, and Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, in which they requested a pronouncement that violations of the publication ban would not be prosecuted.

In the letter, Herschorn said it was “unprecedented for this Service and inappropriate in this context” to issue the pronouncement.

Here’s the catch though, it’s not unprecedented. Michael Baker did it in 2003 to prevent a waste of resources prosecuting firearms registration offences because they would soon be made legal. As for it being inappropriate, with all due respect to Mr. Herschorn, he’s wrong. It is the right thing to do because protecting the identity of a girl who has died, and who became a household name when she committed suicide because the justice system failed her, is the prime example of doing too little, too late.

As if refusing to act wasn’t enough, Herschorn went one step further to seemingly create the perfect Catch-22. He said the Public Prosecution Service only gets involved in reviewing cases once a crime has been committed and once a charge is laid. Essentially, the only way for the Public Prosecution Service would offer an opinion on this matter would be for the media to take the risk of breaking the ban and hoping they wouldn’t be prosecuted. So far, no mainstream media have taken what is a minimal risk, but there have been exceptions.

Glen Canning has broken the ban, Leah Parsons has broken the ban, and I’ve broken the ban. So far, none of us have been charged. Come on in folks, the water’s fine.

Much is made of the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service being the first in Canada to be independent from political control. This is a good thing, but before you start the slow clap, let’s take a look back at why Nova Scotia did this back in 1990. It wasn’t some bold innovation. On the contrary, it was cod liver oil served up to the politicians by the Marshall Inquiry.

Two prominent members of John Buchanan’s Tory government – Billy Joe MacLean and Roland Thornhill — were deemed to have received preferential treatment by prosecutors during criminal investigations. The Marshall Inquiry said that, in both cases, the Attorney General of the day relied on misleading or poor reports from Deputy Attorney General Gordon Coles and recommended that the public prosecution service be largely independent of political control.

Nowadays, the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service touts itself as being an independent body and it seems proud, almost strident about that, but they act as if the Attorney General, who is answerable to the Legislature, the government and the people of this province, can’t tell them how to do their job.

She can, just has to do it in a public way and can’t give hush-hush orders to protect political cronies or friends. This limitation on the operational independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions is spelled out on the department’s website.

The Attorney General can issue written instructions to the Director of Public Prosecutions and these instructions are binding, but must be made public. The purpose of this is explained by the following excerpt:

This procedure preserves the ultimate prosecutorial authority of the Attorney General. This is a means of ensuring accountability to the electorate for the manner in which public prosecutions are conducted.

In this case, Metlege Diab would make a public pronouncement that would be well-received by the electorate, but so far, her inaction on this issue is as disappointing as the original reaction of her predecessor Ross Landry, the NDP Justice Minister who made this callous remark on April 9, 2013, two days after Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support:

“If the evidence isn’t in place, we can’t second-guess every investigation.”

Remember, this is a ban that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents don’t want, an Ontario Crown Attorney prosecuting the case doesn’t want, and one which Judge Jamie Campbell said doesn’t serve any purpose in this case. So, while the learned judge was rightly applying the law, common sense and justice get short shrift.

As a result of this ban, organizers of two events in Ontario (one in Kingston, the other in Cornwall) have cancelled public speaking engagements for Glen Canning.

That’s the chill that has been created by this ban and it’s got to stop. This is a tremendous opportunity for Nova Scotia’s first female Attorney General to do the right thing.

One of the accused is due back in court for sentencing on Nov. 13 and the other is scheduled for a trial later in the month.

By then, let’s hope that Metlege Diab has given the media the green light to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name again – without restrictions.

Don’t wait for legal reform — push for it

roderick-macdonald

Roderick Macdonald was a contrarian and innovator who shaped legal reform in Canada.

Most Canadians probably think legal reform is something best left to lawyers and politicians. Reflect on that for a few minutes and ask yourself if you want to leave it entirely up to them. Consider to whom they might be beholden and don’t leave it up to others to make the kind of country you want.

In the Internet age, there is greater opportunity to participate in democracy and participate in discussions. The Internet is  to us as the agora was to ancient Greece. It is an amazing medium, but some people are using it to great harm and our justice system doesn’t seem to be able to keep pace.

As Hilary Beaumont wrote in her excellent article in The Coast there are people using the Internet to commit crimes that police say are beyond the current scope of the law. In some cases that’s true, but in many cases police and prosecutors just need the mental dexterity to apply existing laws to new crimes that fit under their umbrella.

I’m a firm believer in democracy, despite its flaws, but there is a lack of accountability and transparency in our government and bureaucracy. There is also an overwhelming urge to dither instead acting clearly and decisively to do the right thing. You should never be afraid to do the right thing under the circumstances. If you’re afraid of future consequences, then you adjust your actions to mitigate or eliminate those.

After writing about the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, someone contacted me and offered to help. It was great to hear a total stranger offer me words of encouragement and legal support if I needed it. He also shared with me some new inspiration: former McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald.

In May, Macdonald gave what was perhaps his last interview at a symposium in Montreal, and a few of his comments are worthy of a valedictory address for a man who had a profound impact on legal reform in our country.

“Many, many people believe that the law is a one-way projection of authority from lawmakers or law-givers to citizens, who are merely passive respondents to what the commands of the people in authority are. The best way to achieve a harmonious and peaceful society is to recognize that people have within themselves the capacity to do what is appropriate under the circumstances, and that the law should be designed to facilitate their agency.”

Now that a growing number of people have broken the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Glen Canning has asked the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service of Nova Scotia to issue a pronouncement saying they will not prosecute. We wait, but hopefully they will make a decision before the next court appearance. Meanwhile, media outside Canada, including one of the world’s most respected newspapers — The Guardian — are covering it and using Rehtaeh’s name in their coverage.

Hopefully, they’re convinced the ban has been broken. If they’re not convinced, then keep doing your part to break it. It’s about nothing more than making sure public officials are held accountable for their actions — or inaction — and for this to be done with public scrutiny.

Radio interview about publication ban

Rick Howe had me on his show this afternoon. I agreed not to mention Rehtaeh Parsons’ name during the interview, but that is the case we are talking about.

If you’d like to listen, here’s a link.

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.