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Rehtaeh Parsons case may prompt Criminal Code changes

Nova Scotia’s justice minister plans to call on the federal government to make it illegal to share sexual images without the consent of the people in those photos.
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Nevil Hunt, April 22, 2013 9:06:31 AM

Nova Scotia is still coming to grips with the Rehtaeh Parsons case. In truth, the 17-year-old’s story could have taken place in any of our provinces.

That Rehtaeh was allegedly sexually assaulted by four boys in November 2011 was traumatic enough. Her mother’s partner told the Globe and Mail that photos of the assault that were shared with kids at her school may well have been the last straw.

The Halifax girl attempted suicide on April 4, and died a few days later.

“We really believe it was the pictures that caused the final outcome,” Jason Barnes said.

Once a photo gets loose on social media or the web, it travels far beyond the control of the person in the picture. The fact that the sexual assault was shared among local teens must have made Rehtaeh feel like the assault would never end.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said he has promised Rehtaeh’s family that he will try to fix the problem of sexual photos being shared without the consent of the people pictured. Landry and Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gordon Wyant will be in Ottawa this week, where they plan to ask the federal government to change the Criminal Code to criminalize the sharing of sexual images without permission.

Currently there is no law to protect adults if their image is emailed around, tweeted or posted to a website. Yet everyone deserves protection from being ridiculed or harassed if a nude photo of them surfaces.

“It’s about images getting out there that don’t have the permission of the parties involved,” Landry told a reporter.

Landry is suggesting anyone who distributes or redistributes a sexual photo without consent should be guilty of a crime. Landry’s intent is valid, but untangling the Internet is a daunting task.

If someone receives a sexual photo of someone who doesn’t want the picture to be seen, how would the recipient know that consent wasn’t given? And if they copy it to other people, could they be prosecuted? That seems unreasonable, and it would be difficult to prove someone knowingly forwarded a non-consensual photo.

There’s also the international nature of the Internet. The Canadian Criminal Code can be altered, but it still won’t apply to people outside our borders.

If there is any chance to squelch the transmission of non-consensual photos, it’s at the source. The person who takes a photo, or who steals a photo from someone else, should be guilty of a serious crime if they share it with anyone else and the subject hasn’t OK’d it.

A new law might not be enforceable in every case, but it could make a critical difference for a handful of teens and adults, and that’s reason enough to consider reopening the Criminal Code.

If sharing sexual photos without permission becomes a crime, it will only take a few prosecutions and convictions to make all Canadians think twice before pressing the send button.

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