Chris Selley in the National Post:
As if contemplating a tormented child taking her own life isn’t horrible enough, we must now live with online blame-mobs grabbing hold of a narrative and demanding justice — and not necessarily in a courtroom. We are seeing it again this week in the sad case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia 17-year-old who killed herself last week, her mother Leah Parson claims, after being raped and bullied relentlessly by peers over photographs of the assault.
On Facebook, in comment sections and on blogs, people are calling for Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists and bullies to be outed, named and shamed (only without using the word “alleged”). Some want Anonymous — which fingered the wrong alleged culprits after British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide in October — to get in on the act. What could go wrong, right?
Plenty. Being accused of rape is a hell of a stigma nowadays, and rightly so. That’s why we leave such accusations to the professionals.
The police say they investigated Rehtaeh’s allegations, but found insufficient evidence to lay charges. Ms. Parsons accuses the police of neglecting to interview the accused until “much, much later.” And the police should answer for that, if it’s true. But when cops screw up, cases fall apart. Neither vigilantism nor compromising the usual standards by which justice is done is an appropriate remedy.
In her tremendous new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon relates the story of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts 15-year-old who committed suicide in 2010 after an intense bout of high-school drama. It was nothing you wouldn’t expect a healthy child to pull through, and indeed Phoebe suffered from clinical depression (the “reddest red flag for suicide,” as Ms. Bazelon puts it). But the media reduced the narrative to simple “bullycide” — “the paradigmatic parable of teenage evil.”
Elected prosecutors charged six students with a dizzying range of offences: Assault with a deadly weapon for one who threw a pop can at Phoebe; statutory rape for two older teenagers who had consensual sex with her; a civil rights violation for one who called Phoebe an “Irish slut”; and causing bodily injury, i.e., Phoebe’s death. There was nothing to support this. It was madness, and a sane prosecutor eventually all but abandoned the cases. But in the meantime, worse than nothing was accomplished.
Update: Parsons’s mother is speaking out against vigilantism:
The mother of a Halifax teenager who killed herself after allegedly being raped and photographed by four boys is making a public plea for people to leave the boys linked to the allegations alone.
Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, died on the weekend after trying to take her life last Thursday. Leah Parsons says her daughter was raped by four boys when she was 15, and then became the victim of bullying and harassment after a picture taken on the night of the alleged attack was circulated.
Parsons took to Facebook to tell her daughter’s story and shame the unnamed alleged perpetrators. By Wednesday morning, an online petition calling for an inquiry into the police investigation had garnered more than 6,000 signatures.
“I don’t want more bullying. Rehtaeh wouldn’t want more bullying. I don’t think that’s justice,” Parsons said.
She called the police investigation into the case horrible, but said she doesn’t want vigilantes to go after the boys, none of whom have been charged.
“I think they need to be accountable for while that they did,” Parsons said. “I don’t want them to be physically harmed.”