The Chronicle Herald has done something no major Canadian media outlet has dared do: it breached the court-ordered publication ban on the Rehteah Parsons case.
“Second Man Pleads Guilty in Rehteah Parsons Case” read the Halifax paper’s headline on Tuesday, referring to the child pornography charges pressed against two men in relation to a photo of Parsons that was widely circulated on social media and—her parents maintain—ultimately led to her suicide. In naming Parsons, the paper violated a legal order not to identify a victim in connection with court proceedings or actions related to the alleged crime, an act that leaves the Chronicle Herald open to potential prosecution.
The paper said the breach is “in the public interest” because Parsons has become a lightning rod for public discussion about how we deal (or don’t deal with) with sexual assault in Canada.
Though many have proclaimed the absurdity of the ban—it’s an open secret that the proceedings were in relation to Parsons, and American publications, easily searchable online, have freely discussed the case—it’s standard practice, says David Butt, a former prosecutor based in Toronto.
“If the incident involves a sex crime then there is a ban on publishing the name of the complainant. The idea is that we want to encourage complainants to come forward and we don’t want them to put up with adverse publicity on top of everything else.”
But as Butt points out, protection from public scrutiny isn’t necessary in this case, because Parsons died as the result of a suicide attempt in 2013. Protecting her name and reputation posthumously seems like a tragic irony, given the very public humiliation she endured while she was alive.
Unfortunately for Parsons and her parents, the photograph that is now deemed child pornography by the court was not considered evidence of a crime back in 2011. In fact, police reportedly referred to it as a “community matter.” Parsons and her parents have always alleged that the photo, which was used to torment the Cole Harbour, NS-based teen, is evidence of a sexual assault. Though Parsons alleged she had been gang-raped by four boys that night, police never laid charges. It wasn’t until after Parsons passed away in 2013 that police reopened her case, and that came only after public outcry.
Child pornography charges were filed in 2013 against two young men; sexual assault charges have never been filed.
There are reports that the police are looking into the breach of the court-ordered ban (to those people that allegedly complained to cops about the breach, Glen Canning, Rehteah’s father tweeted “get a life”). If the paper pays the price for going to bat for Parsons and her family who have vocally opposed the ban, so be it, says Butt: the breach is in service of a “noble cause” and is an act of “civil disobedience.”
Whether or not that act will result in the urgent social change needed to ensure that there will never be another 17-year-old silenced by the ancient chorus of cruelty, indifference and systemic misogyny that obstructs the path to justice remains to be seen. But it’s a start. And I can’t help but look at the newspaper’s poignant editorial cartoon of what can only be Parsons, unmasked, and think it’s about time, too.