National Post

A Bad law isn’t Rehta eh’s legacy

Nova Scotia teen’s case changed the way we think about cyberbully­ing

- Robyn Urback Comment

There’s an implicit call to action embedded in the grief of losing someone in the most senseless of tragedies. It explains why a father will become an activist for gun- law reform after watching his daughter’s shooting on live television, or why a community might rally for tougher impaired driving laws after learning that a couple had to bury their three kids after a horrific car accident.

We have a hard time tolerating the idea that the world can just continue as it was the day after we lose someone suddenly, so we endeavour to try to make that world just a little bit different. Indeed, the realizatio­n of some measure of positive change helps to answer the question: “Why did this happen?”

The “why” in the case of the death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons has been soothed with the notion that her story will prevent similar suffering for other young girls. The Nova Scotia teen was subjected to relentless bullying after an incident in 2011 in which her family alleges she was sexually assaulted by two boys at a party. A photograph of the incident started circulatin­g around her school, and Parsons was called a “slut” and a “whore” in text messages and notes on social media. In 2013, after months of torment, she hanged herself in the bathroom of her family home and was taken off life support a few days later.

Parsons’ mother spoke about her daughter’s death on Facebook, and the story went viral almost immediatel­y. Hundreds of people attended vigils to honour the late teen’s memory, which elicited comments from a number of community leaders, activists and politician­s. Then- prime minister Stephen Harper told reporters he was “sickened” by the story and said that what happened to Parsons wasn’t mere bullying, but “criminal activity.”

That wasn’t entirely true then, but it would be given new meaning by August of 2013 when Nova Scotia’s new Cyber- safety Act came into effect. The creation and adoption of the Act — the first in Canada specifical­ly designed to curb online harassment — was seen as a direct result of the Rehtaeh Parsons story. Her father, Glen Canning, who has since become a vocal activist in the fight against cyberbully­ing, said he was hopeful the legislatio­n would send a strong message to bullies. “You get the first two or three cases of this and things are going to change in a real hurry,” he said.

As it turned out, the Act would have less than two- and- a- half years to prove its efficacy. In a decision released Friday, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia struck down the law, which Justice Glen McDougall found to be unconstitu­tional on the basis that it violated sections 2( b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to free expression, as well as section 7, which guarantees the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

Calling the Act “over- inclusive,” McDougall wrote that the “definition of cyberbully­ing and the process for obtaining a protection order (…) threaten a person’s right to liberty in a manner that offends the principles of fundamenta­l justice.”

For those who have tracked the Cyber- safety Act since its early days, this decision was not at all surprising. Critics of the law have long charged that it was poorly written and vague, especially in its definition of cyberbully­ing, which it deemed to be “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 wellbeing, self-esteem or reputation.” Indeed, by this definition virtually anything could have been seen as cyberbully­ing: turning down a request for a date, saying you don’t like someone’s taste in music, getting into a political argument on Facebook. The concern for many critics was that by using — or misusing — this legislatio­n, the “bullied” could easily become the “bullies.” The case of Nova Scotia MLA and actress Lenore Zann, who launched a cyberbully­ing complaint in 2013 after a teen tweeted a topless photo of her from an old television show, is arguably evidence of that.

In any case, the striking down of this law will surely be seen by some as an insult to Rehtaeh Par- sons’ memory. It shouldn’t be; the law itself was an insult to the principles of proper justice. Parsons’ story did help to catalyze the implementa­tion of a different, better ( albeit still problemati­c) law against “revenge porn,” though it’s still inapt to say Parsons’ most profound impact has been, or should be, on our country’s legislatio­n. If anything, Parsons’ greatest influence was on changing the way we as individual­s discuss, relate to and tackle issues of cyberbully­ing and harassment, which is infinitely more important than whatever’s officially written in the books. When we talk about online bullying in the abstract now, we think of the picture of Parsons and her dog — and maybe that motivates us to do or say things a little bit differentl­y. That’s how Canada changed after Rehtaeh.

 ?? THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Rehtaeh Parsons was bullied after an incident in 2011 in which her family alleges she was sexually assaulted by two boys at a party.
THE CANADIAN PRESS Rehtaeh Parsons was bullied after an incident in 2011 in which her family alleges she was sexually assaulted by two boys at a party.

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