Public pressure to act is mounting on government, police and school officials in Cole Harbour, N.S., as the story of the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons goes viral around the world. Some of that pressure, however, is coming from anonymous online groups that are threatening to release the identities of boys that they claim were responsible for an alleged sexual assault, as well as for the transmission of a photo or photos of the assault. The actions of these masked vigilantes is dangerous, hypocritical and, ultimately, illegal in Canada.
One group in particular has released a statement claiming it has gathered evidence linking boys to a sexual assault – boys the group has summarily convicted by repeatedly referring to them as "rapists." The statement is filled with assumptions and accusations that, if they have any effect on justice at all, will be to undermine it.
The people behind the statement seem to have no understanding of the rules of due process and evidence. On the contrary, their actions could compromise a fair trial, if it ever came to that. Thus, on the one hand they claim that they do not approve of vigilante justice, and on the other they are taking irresponsible actions that could interfere with the course of the legitimate justice system.
Furthermore, their threats to release the names of boys and link them to alleged criminal activities would be a violation of Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act, which makes it illegal to publish the names of minors accused of crimes. This is yet another threat that could undermine a review of the case by Nova Scotia's attorney general.
The actions of these online vigilantes come across as an attempt to exploit a tragic situation in order to garner attention. If they truly want to help Rehtaeh Parsons, they should deal directly with authorities by handing over any purported evidence they may have. If they want to honour her memory, they should put their faith in a system that, while not perfect, follows well-established rules that guarantee fair trials – rules that serve justice, not revenge.