Nova Scotia authorities’ response to the Rehteah Parsons case would be comical if it wasn’t so infuriating.
The 17-year-old Nova Scotian girl committed suicide four months ago following an alleged rape by four boys when she was 15 and two years of harassment and humiliation by classmates after a photo of the assault was circulated at school and on social media.
On August 7, the Nova Scotia legislature passed the Cyber Safety Act (CSA), a law so draconian it will almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional.
The next day, police announced they had made two arrests in the case.
And finally, on Monday, the government announced an independent review of the case to be conducted by former Ontario attorney general Murray Segal.
Again, I would be laughing if I wasn’t just shaking my head. How they managed to get this so ass-backwards should be the subject of its own review.
It’s horrific, of course that Rehteah, her family and community had to go through this, but that’s where we are. The correct process would have been to immediately convene the independent review and let that be the foundation for new charges and/or new legislation if appropriate.
I am not going to stand in judgment of the police and prosecutors who handled the case initially. Nor will I make any pronouncements regarding the mental health treatment Rehteah received subsequent to her alleged ordeal. That is what the review is for.
It is telling, however, that the charges against two 18-year-old men last week were laid under existing pornography laws.
If the case was mishandled, Segal’s investigation should allow authorities to press charges under rape, assault and criminal harassment laws. It should also yield recommendations to mitigate the chances of another case going awry.
And if, in fact, there are gaps in the Criminal Code hindering authorities from prosecuting cases like this, the review should inform legislators in crafting reasonable legislation, unlike the sweeping, knee-jerk statute they brought forward last week.
Let’s have a quick look at what the Cyber Safety Act entails. It gives authorities sweeping search-and-seizure powers. It gives alleged victims and the courts the ability to issue protection orders against “bullies” without giving them any opportunity to mount a defence. It makes parents and even educators liable for the online activities of minors. It creates a five-member investigative squad that will have jurisdiction to, without notice to alleged bullies, enter their homes and remove electronic devices such as computers, tablets and cell phones.
Guilty until proven innocent is not how a modern justice system is supposed to work.
The definition of cyberbullying in the Act is also troubling being so broad it basically criminalizes free speech. According to the CSA, cyberbullying is “any electronic communication” that “is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes assisting or encouraging such communication in any way.”
By this definition, the minute this column goes up on the Yorkton This Week website, every person in our company who had a hand in it, from me to the publisher to the webmaster, has basically committed a crime in Nova Scotia. In fact, the province might just as well put up a firewall and block Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other social media because I cannot think of a single person who doesn’t at times contravene this legislation by posting political cartoons, memes and other stuff intended or that ought reasonably be expected to make politicians feel like idiots.
Perhaps Nova Scotia MLAs are counting on the courts to sort out what truly constitutes cyberbullying and what remains protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as free expression and fair comment, but I find it appalling that lawmakers figure they can simply trample all over the Constitution whenever something bad happens.
Here’s a better idea: let’s figure out what happened before we overreact.