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Leah Parsons, left, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, and her partner Jason Barnes, attend a protest near the Halifax Regional Police headquarters in Halifax on Sunday, April 14, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Leah Parsons, left, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, and her partner Jason Barnes, attend a protest near the Halifax Regional Police headquarters in Halifax on Sunday, April 14, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CRIME

Ottawa homes in on cyberbullying laws Add to ...

Ottawa wants officials to speed up their search for possible gaps in the laws governing the circulation of intimate images, as calls grow for the federal government to introduce new legislation targeting those who distribute sexually explicit images for malicious reasons.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson will meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts on Wednesday, when he is expected to recommend that the joint working group studying the issue be tasked with providing a legal opinion by June. The justice ministers’ meeting is set to take place one day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper sits down with Rehtaeh Parsons’s mother and her mother’s partner on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of new legislation to address any gaps.

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The working group began studying cyberbullying several weeks after the death of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from Vancouver who endured persistent online bullying after a sexually explicit image of her was circulated online. Officials from Mr. Nicholson’s office say Rehtaeh Parsons’s death added new urgency to the review, which they hope will help to identify how new legislation might better protect people like Ms. Parsons and Ms. Todd.

Ms. Parsons died on April 7, three days after she attempted suicide. Her mother, Leah Parsons, has alleged that her daughter was sexually assaulted by four boys in November, 2011, and that a photograph of the assault was distributed among her classmates.

The two deaths sparked an outpouring of grief and support from across the country, while drawing renewed attention to the problem of controlling personal images in a digital age.

Last week, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry called for a new law aimed at anyone who distributes intimate images of another person for malicious or sexual purposes, regardless of the victim’s age. Mr. Landry said the law would help. “This is not going to go away, so what have we done since the last time, since Amanda Todd [and others],” he said.

Amanda Todd’s mother, Carol Todd, said she spoke with Mr. Landry about his proposal on Monday and had earlier written to all provincial justice ministers asking them to support the idea.

She said she believes a new law would help raise awareness and could serve as a deterrent to young people who might consider sending explicit images to their friends. “To me, it’s just a start toward making sure something like what happened to Amanda doesn’t happen again,” she said. “I’m really glad that the process has been started.”

Mr. Nicholson said Monday that he believes there are gaps in the system, but declined to specify them. “This is what, you know, we’ve instructed our officials to identify,” he said.

Some lawyers have questioned the government’s plans to introduce new legislation, in part because child pornography laws already cover the distribution of explicit photos where the victim is younger than 18.

But in cases where the victim is 18 or older, it is easier to see where there could be a legislative gap, said Jane Bailey, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. While criminal harassment or voyeurism laws might be applicable in some situations, “nothing is sort of finely tuned to the kind of act and the sort of harm that’s involved” with the distribution of sexually explicit images.

Prof. Bailey added that it might be time to look more seriously at enforcing child pornography laws in certain situations like that of Ms. Parsons, when other young people are accused of distributing explicit images of a peer.

“For those under 18, I think that this is the kind of case that should really force the issue in terms of thinking about the applicability [of child pornography laws] to teens,” she said.

Prof. Bailey added that legislation alone is not enough, and more should also be done to educate young people about the dangers of sharing intimate photos with others.

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