Our Zimmerman case

Over two years after she was allegedly raped, and four months after she took her own life, two of Rehtaeh Parsons’s alleged tormentors will appear in court today:

Two young men face child pornography charges today in a high-profile court case connected to Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teen who was bullied online and then took her own life.

The 17-year-old died in April. She was taken off of life support a few days after a suicide attempt.

According to Rehtaeh’s parents, four boys sexually assaulted their daughter at a house party when she was 15. The Cole Harbour, N.S., teen was then said to have been mocked by classmates, enduring relentless harassment and humiliation after a digital photo of the attack was circulated at school and on social media.

The boys charged in the case are both 18, but they can’t be named because they were youths at the time of the alleged offences.

One is charged with creating and distributing child pornography. The other faces two distribution charges.

It’s not clear whether the accused will appear in person or if defence lawyers will appear on their behalf.

This CBC report quotes Dalhousie law professor Wayne McKay, and criminal defence lawyer Elizabeth Buckle, who note some of the unusual aspects of this case:

Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the chair of the province’s task force on cyberbullying, said the case is a legal anomaly.

“It’s relatively unusual to have young people charged with child pornography, though there are a few other precedents for that,” he said. “So there are so many new elements that have come out of the Rehtaeh Parsons situation that it seems to be a never-ending process.”


Elizabeth Buckle, president of the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said the widespread speculation blanketing the case is troublesome.

“One of the things that shocks me is how little we’re hearing about the presumption of innocence and how many people are giving comment about the facts without knowing all the facts,” she said.

Buckle said it was unusual to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper comment on the progress being made in the case as it moves before the courts.

“I think it ignores the presumption of innocence, and it ignores that maybe no criminal offence took place here,” she said.

Halifax police and RCMP decided to reopen the case in mid-April after her death, saying that new and credible information had been brought forward.

If the police really found new evidence that makes a conviction more likely, so be it.  But the similarities between this case and the George Zimmerman trial are disturbing.

In both cases, we have incidents that led to the tragic deaths of promising young people; decisions by the police and/or prosecutors not to law criminal charges; widespread outrage on the internet; blatant interference and pandering by elected politicians; the reopening of investigations by the police; and heavily publicized trials.

Zimmerman, of course, was found not guilty.  Considering the high burden of proof that must be met by the Crown, I will not be at all surprised if both accused in the Parsons case are acquitted as well.

The question is, will the people who wanted criminal charges laid accept such a verdict?

“Cyber Safety” in Nova Scotia

This province’s new Cyber Safety Act, drafted after the horrible Rehteah Parsons case came to light, officially took effect yesterday.

The law firm of Stewart McKelvey published this brief summary of the new law:

Cyberbullying is defined in the Act as:

any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and electronic mail, typically repeated or with continuing effect, 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.

A person who subjects another person to cyberbullying commits the tort and can be liable for general, special, aggravated and punitive damages and be subject to an injunction.


If the person committing the tort of cyberbullying is under the age of 19, his or her parent(s) or guardian(s) will be jointly and severally liable, unless they can convince the court that they:

a.) Were exercising reasonable supervision over the child at the time the child engaged in the activity that caused the loss or damage; and

b.) Made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the child from engaging in the kind of activity that resulted in the loss or damage.

Factors the court will consider in making this assessment include:

– The age of the child;

– The prior conduct of the child;

– The physical and mental capacity of the child, including any psychological or other medical disorders of the child;

– Whether the child used an electronic device supplied by the parent, for the activity;

– Any conditions imposed by the parent on the use by the child of an electronic device;

– Whether the child was under the direct supervision of the parent at the time when he or she engaged in the activity; and

– Whether the parent acted unreasonably in failing to make reasonable arrangements for the supervision of the defendant.

My time in Junior High was hellish enough without the internet and camera phones, so I shudder to think what it must be like today for those who don’t fit in.

But I also have little faith in the government’s ability to fundamentally understand, much less police, what happens online.  And legislation hastily drafted in response to a moral outrage inevitably has serious problems.

Freedom of expression is not absolute.  That’s why we have the tort of defamation, and laws against criminal harassment and “hate speech.”  But not everything that might disturb you, or hurt your self-esteem, should be considered “bullying.”  (I’m often accused of taking my political views way too seriously, and there’s no shortage of commentators who can get my back up almost every day.  But does that harm my “emotional well-being,” or do I just need to lighten up?)

And in an age where, in most households, both parents are working, there is only so far a parent can go in supervising their children’s internet usage.  It’s easy to delete your browser history (or turn on “private browsing”), so even the most diligent parent will not know everything that their son or daughter is posting.  And even if they don’t have home internet access at all, the youngster can just go to any public library.

I don’t want children being bullied online (or offline, for that matter), but there are other societal values – especially freedom of expression, and people not being held legally responsible for things they didn’t know about – which should be kept in mind. If the Cyber Safety Act survives Charter scrutiny at all, here’s hoping the courts keep these principles in mind.

Update: Jesse Brown, technology columnist for Maclean’s, savages the new legislation:

…Rape, assault, harassment: these are crimes with established parameters. All of them could also be called “bullying.” They could also be described as “mean,” and I suppose we could enact a law against being mean. But I’d rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour. Ultimately, bullying is in the eye of the bullied. For many, cyberbullying is equal to a negative thing said about them on the Internet. I’ve met restaurant owners who feel they’re being cyberbullied by Chowhound critics.

The problems with anti-cyberbullying laws don’t end there. Once a law establishes some flawed definition, it moves on to enforcement. Here’s how Nova Scotia’s new Cyber Safety Act, which went into effect yesterday, will go about stopping online abuse:

Someone feels that you’re cyberbullying them. They visit or phone the court and request a protection order against you (minors , or some reason, cannot do so, only adults). A judge decides if their claim meets the law’s definition. The definition of cyberbullying, in this particular bill, includes “any electronic communication” that ”ought reasonably be expected” to “humiliate” another person, or harm their “emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

If this is the standard, I don’t know a person who isn’t a cyberbully.

Nova Scotia’s Maintenance Enforcement Mess

The Dexter government’s inexplicable decision to move the Maintenance Enforcement Program from Halifax to Cape Breton is creating massive headaches for support recipients:

More stories of confusion and uncertainty emerged Tuesday over the NDP government moving the offices and staff tasked with tracking down deadbeat dads.

As of this month, the Justice Department has closed all its maintenance enforcement offices — in Amherst, Sydney, Dartmouth, Kentville and New Glasgow — to the public. The service is to be relocated to New Waterford, with a new office opening in the spring.

Carolyn Stewart of Halifax, who last received a payment in August and is now owed $18,000, said Tuesday that she just talked to her caseworker in the Amherst office Monday and was told her file would be moved to Cape Breton. The caseworker, like others on the mainland, isn’t making the move to the new office.

Stewart said she didn’t realize the Cape Breton office isn’t open yet.


Justice Department figures showed that, as of March 31, 2011, there were more than 15,000 cases in the province’s maintenance enforcement program, which collects and distributes court-ordered payments like spousal support. More than 9,000 cases were in arrears, by a total amount of $81 million by Dec. 31, 2011, according to the department.

A single mother quoted Tuesday in The Chronicle Herald said she had been waiting six weeks to hear from a caseworker after leaving several voice messages and was having problems with the program’s 1-800 number.

Justice Minister Ross Landry said Tuesday he called the woman and left a message expressing his concern about her situation.

Another woman contacted The Chronicle Herald on Tuesday saying she also had trouble with the automated telephone message system.

Rachelle Purcell said in an interview that she’s tired of getting the runaround while chasing the court-ordered payments for her teenage daughter. The last payment she received arrived Nov. 12, and arrears total about $9,600, she said.

“I can’t get hold of one person,” she said, referring to enforcement workers on her file. “They don’t call you back.”

Two related stories


A Nova Scotia teenager who made international headlines for getting suspended from school after wearing a T-shirt with a Christian message didn’t attend classes on Monday and may be leaving the school for good.

William Swinimer, a Grade 12 student at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, N.S., was suspended last Monday after repeatedly wearing to class a bright yellow T-shirt with the slogan “Life is wasted without Jesus” despite a request from the principal not to.

On Friday, the suspension was reversed and he was expected to resume classes on Monday, wearing the shirt. The school had planned to hold a special talk about religious freedoms.

But instead, he arrived on campus early Monday morning with his father, who abruptly pulled him out of the school, saying he doesn’t want anything to do with the school’s planned discussions about the balance between religious freedom and students’ rights to not have their beliefs criticized. [emphasis added]


CR 61/2012, Juhu Police Station, has been filed against miracle-buster Sanal Edamaruku, who is also founder-president of the Rationalist International, which has scientists such as Richard Dawkins in it.

The FIR [apparently a First Information Report -EV] has been filed under IPC Sec 295A: Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs….

The whole story began on March 5, when during a TV programme in Delhi, Sanal dismissed reports that the “dripping cross” outside Vile Parle’s Velankanni church was a miracle….

Later on March 10, Sanal attributed the water dripping from the Jesus statue to capillary action of underground water near the cross. His photographs, displayed on TV-9, showed seepage on the wall behind the cross and on the ground near its base. “I removed one of the stones covering a canal for dirty water nearby, and found that water had been blocked there. Once water is blocked, it will find an outlet, if not downwards, then upwards. Every student knows that trees get water through capillary action.” [emphasis added]

There is a right to freedom of expression, or a right to not be offended. Pick one.

“Life is Wasted Without Jesus”

If you’re a Christian, you probably think that statement is just common sense.  If you aren’t a Christian, you probably rolled your eyes and moved on.  And if you’re an administrator at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, you think it’s hateful speech meriting suspension from school:

William Swinimer was suspended from the Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin for five days on Monday, after he defied the principal’s instruction not to wear a yellow T-shirt sporting the phrase “Life is wasted without Jesus” anymore.

He’d worn the shirt to school several times before he was told two weeks ago that another student had complained. That was when he was told to leave it out of his school week wardrobe.

Swinimer says he never intended to be rude or disrespectful, but he’ll keep wearing the shirt because he stands behind its message.

“That’s my opinion, but under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms I’m allowed to have my opinion and express my opinion,” the Grade 12 student told CTV’s Canada AM on Friday.

“The only reason I’m wearing the T-shirt continually now is because I’m standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen.”

But according to South Shore Regional School Board Supt. Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, the problem is not that the shirt sports a religious message, but that this particular message appears aimed at denigrating those who don’t agree.

“We do ask that our students are expressing their views in a way that could not be interpreted by other students as a criticism of their beliefs,” Pynch-Worthylake told CTV Atlantic on Thursday.

A good test case: let’s get a female student at Forest Heights to wear a shirt reading “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries” and see what happens.

More here and here.  If a teacher was using his position in a public school to promote his religion, I’d understand the controversy.  (There’s also some suggestion that Swinimer has been aggressive in confronting other students about his Christian beliefs, which wouldn’t necessarily merit a suspension, but could at least be said to be imposing on other students’ rights.)  But “keeping religion out of the schools” doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be allowed to express their religious beliefs.  Unless you’re in France, at least.

At least one student has gotten the message: if you see something that offends you, whine about it until it’s removed from your sight.

Grade 11 student Niall Barkes told CTV Atlantic that interpretion is within reason.

“I’m an atheist myself and I’m kind of offended because he’s basically stating that my life is wasted without Jesus, it’s just not a fair statement at all and I think the reason for him getting suspended is reasonable,” Barkes said.

I believed a lot of obnoxious, self-righteous things when I was your age, too, Mr. Barkes.

Good news, unmarried women of Nova Scotia!

You’ll soon be able to legally own land and enter into a contract.  Progress!

Nearing the turn of the 20th century, travelling by horse was still the way to go, the tallest building in Toronto was just seven storeys high and in Nova Scotia, it wasn’t OK for a married woman to own property in her name alone.

Or sign a contract.

Not OK at all, until the prov­ince enacted legislation to let it happen, a little more than a cen­tury ago.

“At that time, the practice was that a married woman couldn’t own property individually. An unmarried woman could, but a married woman couldn’t,” said Justice Department spokes­man Dan Harrison.

“Common law has advanced past that. We don’t need to have that anymore.”

As a result, the province says it is getting ready to eliminate six pieces of outdated legislation whose time has come — and gone.

Via @natnewswatch.