The "large-scale" case of six teenaged boys accused of keeping intimate photos on a Dropbox account will be an early test of a law designed to combat the unwanted online sharing of naked images, a prosecutor said Tuesday after a brief court hearing.
Outside youth court in Bridgewater, N.S., Crown prosecutor Leigh-Ann Bryson said it was the first time that her region has laid charges of distributing intimate images without consent against a group of youths.
It's an important trial both in Nova Scotia and nationally as case law is still being developed for the law passed March 10, 2015, she said.
"Certainly it's one of the first large-scale cases of this nature," she said, adding she's aware of one other youth case underway in Halifax.
The teens are also charged with possessing and distributing child pornography.
Lawyers for five of the six young men appeared in youth court for the arraignments. Judge Paul Scovil set Oct. 5 as the next court date, unless an earlier date can be agreed on.
One of the youths had appeared earlier and the same adjournment date was set in his case.
Some of the teenagers and their families were also present, with one wearing a shirt and tie and another jeans and a sweat shirt. They conferred with their lawyers, and departed quickly without commenting after the adjournment.
The case gained national prominence earlier this year after the four 15-year-olds and two 18-year-olds were charged by Bridgewater police.
Police Chief John Collyer has said the difficult case required a year-long investigation and a search warrant in San Francisco to search the file where the images were allegedly held.
He's also alleged that images of more than 20 teen girls were circulated after being shared without consent in the Dropbox account.
The identities of the accused are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The intimate images law was created by the Conservative government after the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, as part of a wider effort aimed at reducing the flow of explicit photos being shared on the Internet without consent.
The 17-year-old attempted suicide and was taken off life support after a digital photo of what her family says was a sexual assault was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour, N.S.
Unlike child pornography laws, section 162(1) of the criminal code can be applied both to teens and adults and it doesn't require that images involved have a sexual purpose. The penalties are also less severe.
Bryson said she believes the law could prove to be a useful tool for the Crown and offers a chance to help people who suffer when their images are circulated.
"It's important for these charges to be available because these are offences that have a huge impact on victims," she said.
"This is something that can have a great emotional impact on the victims and depending on how far images have spread, it can be an unending impact."
Defence counsel Joshua Nodelman, who represents one of the teenaged boys, said he is going through the roughly 500 pages of disclosure documents, but keeping an eye out for the possibility of a constitutional challenge.
"It's an issue where we have a new law that hasn't been tested yet ... we should see if it passes constitutional muster," he said.
He noted that possible sentences in youth court in the case of conviction can range from youth probation up to house arrest and time in custody.
Earlier, Police Chief John Collyer says it's an important test of the new criminal code provision on intimate images, which allows prosecutions for sharing a wider range of images, including breasts, than traditional child porn laws.
"From a policing perspective, we needed some legislation," said Collyer in an interview. "Whether it's hit the right balance or not in terms of severity, and keeping in mind we're dealing with young people ... time will tell."
Since the case broke, terms like sexting and "revenge porn" have become coffee-shop topics in this commercial and industrial centre bisected by the tranquil LaHave River.
The teens at the youth centre describe harsh consequences when smart phone images circulate — and then erupt in high school taunts and cruelty.
"People shout out opinions of how they look ... They say, 'What a slut!' or they start to criticize their bodies," said Bailey, a 14-year-old who asked not to have her family name used.
Michael Langille, 18, recalls how he sat outside a friend's room after images of the boy's body were passed around.
"I would hear cries," said Langille. "I would sit outside his door just waiting. He was exposed to people he didn't want to be exposed to."
Some experts on teen sexting view the Bridgewater case with concern, saying that solutions other than the heavy hand of the law may be preferable.
McGill University education professor Shaheen Shariff studied the "digitally empowered" generation of kids in a 2013 project that used surveys and focus groups involving 1,088 tweens and teens in two Canadian and two U.S. cities.
Shariff estimates that over half of participants confirmed receiving or sending intimate images, adding that the figures on the prevalence of sexting will vary among studies.
She also said only about half of participants agreed that a girl who sends a boy a sexually explicit photo has the "right to object" to his sharing the photo with others without permission.
"I don't believe that the child porn law ... and Bill C-13 laws that the Harper government brought in are as effective with the kids," she said in an interview.
"We need to work with them, dialogue with them ... on why this kind of total disregard of the privacy of people ... is just not appropriate."
The Montreal university's "Defining the line" project calls for training in schools, police forces and courts to deepen adult knowledge of the central medium of communication among youth.
The young people at the Bridgewater centre agree that more dialogue is needed among young people themselves in classrooms, at home and elsewhere, but don't rule out the need for police involvement when unwanted sharing occurs.
Bailey and Langille described their sense of unease when friends had either shown them a photo of someone else or offered to show them, without permission.
In addition, the pressure to provide the images can also become intense, says Bailey.
"Compliments lead to demands," she said. "He was being discreet and then he suddenly said, 'Just send me nudes."'
Claire, a former student at Bridgewater High School, says it can create corrosive and widespread distrust among students.
She argues the focus needs to shift from the moralistic condemnation of girls who are sexting — consensually sharing images — to those who choose to misuse the images.
If boys gather and hoard photos as "a show of masculinity," that's the misbehaviour that should be the focus, rather than young women exposing their bodies and sending images to intimate friends, she said.
"I don't think it's an issue of whether you should think twice or not ... You shouldn't have to worry about that," she says during a telephone interview.
Bridgewater Mayor David Walker, a teacher for over two decades before becoming a municipal politician, says the reality is that police and schools in towns across Canada are struggling to find ways to deal with cases where teens are deemed to have crossed a line.
"I've heard arguments, 'Nail them as hard as you can,' and I've heard other arguments, 'No, you've got to work with them.' Maybe it's somewhere in between,"' he said during an interview.