Canada won’t allow its journalists to print Rehtaeh Parsons’ name, because she was a victim of child pornography. That ban extends to advertising, too, one of Parsons’ family members has found, even if an ad only includes what could be considered an oblique reference to the court case that invoked the publication ban.
Rehtaeh Parsons died last year, and last month a young man pleaded guilty to taking a photograph that led to her being bullied and tormented. But Nova Scotia media could only refer to the plea as being in conjunction with a “high-profile child pornography case.”
Rehtaeh Parsons’ uncle, Jim Canning, tried to place an ad in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald, the largest newspaper in the province, to make the connection between the conviction and his niece. But the paper refused, concerned such an ad would violate the publication ban.
“I was pretty disappointed,” Jim Canning said. “We just wanted to say ‘Rehtaeh Parsons is her name.’ That’s it. We would have been fine with that.”
Rehtaeh Parsons’ case attained worldwide notoriety last April, when she committed suicide after months of cyber-bullying. Her ordeal began after a photo got shared of her leaning out a window puking while a boy penetrated her from behind.
She claimed she was raped by this boy and three others, but the boys say the sex was consensual and occurred at an alcohol-fueled party.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Nova Scotia investigated the matter for several months but never seized the boys’ cellphones and didn’t speak to the accused for 10 months. When the police finally took their evidence to the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service, the Crown Attorney that reviewed the file refused to prosecute because she didn’t think the likelihood of a conviction was high enough.
After Rehtaeh’s death, her mother, Leah, turned to social media to tell her daughter’s story. The hacker collective Anonymous got involved and intense pressure from them, the public, and the provincial government prompted the police to re-open the case.
New evidence turned up and was given to Halifax police, who laid charges in August 2013 — but not for sexual assault. They charged two boys: one with production and distribution of child pornography and one with distribution of child pornography.
There is a statutory ban on the naming of victims in child pornography cases in Canada, yet the media continued to name Rehtaeh Parsons until April 2014, when Nova Scotia Provincial Court Judge Jamie Campbell ordered the ban. Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the order, as did Alex Smith, an Ontario Crown Prosecutor brought in to handle the case.
Four Nova Scotia media outlets hired lawyer Nancy Rubin to fight the ban, but Campbell said the statute gave him no leeway. Because the law protects the victims of child pornography, he was not prepared to forge a ruling that could be misconstrued in the future.
Martin Herschorn, Nova Scotia’s Director of Public Prosecutions, and Lena Metlege Diab, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, said they couldn’t promise to not prosecute any journalists who broke the ban until it was violated.
That presented media outlets with a perfect Catch-22: The media couldn’t name Rehtaeh Parsons, and the only way to create a legal path to use her name in covering this case was for a journalist to break the law.
Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents openly flouted the ban. They started a social media campaign and made T-shirts and buttons with the slogan “Rehtaeh Parsons is her name.”
But no mainstream Canadian media followed, which is why Rehtaeh Parsons’ uncle, Jim Canning, took it upon himself to try to place an ad in The Chronicle Herald.
He sent the paper the copy he wanted in the ad:
Her name is Rehtaeh Parsons.
She was raped at 15.
She was bullied and died by suicide at 17.
And then we banned her name.
The Chronicle Herald objected to the last line referencing the ban and asked Canning if he would remove it. He said yes, and then the ad got reviewed again.
“They were still too worried about it, even though basically at this point it’s just saying her name,” said Canning.
He said the advertising executive he was speaking with told him “it’s kind of implied that you’re talking about the ban,” Canning said. “I thought that was just ridiculous.”
Chronicle Herald Associate Publisher Ian Thompson told me it was purely a legal issue for the paper.
“We got advice to say that we would be in violation of the ban if we ran that ad,” Thompson said. “We would have been happy to run the ad, but we don’t want to run afoul of the law.”
Days after rejecting Canning’s ad the Herald ran a story by The Canadian Press on Oct. 1 in which it named Rehtaeh Parsons.
“We’ve run her name many times, but it’s in the context of that particular court action where the ban comes into play,” Thompson said.
When asked how the wire story about an anti-cyberbullying curriculum was different than the ad proposed by Canning, Thompson said when it comes to the law “there are often gray areas, and that’s why there are lawyers.”
Put simply, the Herald asked these questions when considering Canning’s ad: “Would it be seen by the court as an attempt to overcome what Judge Campbell had said and was this an attempt to do from the back door what the court said you can’t do in the front door?” Thompson said.
Toronto lawyer Brian Rogers says you have to consider Jim Canning’s intent, which Rogers says is to get around the ban.“Even taking that last line out, that’s still the intended purpose of the ad,” Rogers said. Even though the CP story mentions that Rehtaeh was the victim of cyber-bullying, and that this entailed the taking and distribution of the photograph, which is the crux of the child-pornography case, it’s different.
“I can appreciate that some people may scratch their heads and wonder about the distinction, but it is one,” Rogers said.
Rogers stressed that he wasn’t prepared to second-guess the advice the Chronicle Herald received, but he does understand the basis on which they made their decision.
“It’s clear that the intent of the ad is to subvert the ban, whereas the other is an article talking about cyber-bullying legislation,” he said.
He also agreed that the words in the ad, which echo those in the social media campaign by Glen Canning and Leah Parsons – an open defiance of the ban – would also be a factor worth considering.
“This is by no means a simple black-and-white situation and you would take into account all kinds of factors,” Rogers said. “It’s really a matter for the client to decide what risk they are prepared to take. There are circumstances in which clients are more prepared to take risks than others.”
In this case, The Chronicle Herald decided it wasn’t prepared to take the risk.
“Lawyers are always going to take the most risk-averse approach to most things, so the advice isn’t surprising,” Jim Canning said. “But when you make business decisions or moral decisions, you don’t just solely base it off of what your lawyer tells you or no one would ever do anything.”
Two Chronicle Herald journalists, Selena Ross and Frances Willick, shared a national newspaper award for their investigative work into the Rehtaeh Parsons case, so it’s unfortunate that their coverage has been hampered by this ban.
“I do personally hope the ban won’t be enforced and that we can get away from this stilted, ineffective coverage,” Ross said.
Thompson said, “Rehtaeh Parsons’ name will appear in our newspaper again – obviously.”
It’s a name that carries power and brings weight to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying or suicide prevention, Canning said.
“I think the name is important, just like my brother [Rehtaeh’s father, Glen] does,” Canning said. “I just wanted to kind of make a statement: ‘Don’t forget her.’