Parents of missing N.S. toddler take fight against cyberbullying to court

The lawyer representing the parents of a toddler who went missing last May in Truro, N.S., is heading to court next week to fight back against the deluge of harassment and vitriol the couple has received since the little boy vanished. 

While police have said they do not believe foul play was involved in the disappearance of Dylan Ehler, that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from attacking his parents on social media with unfounded accusations, insults and threats.

“I can’t even imagine how they’re dealing with just looking for their son and having their son be missing,” Allison Harris, the lawyer representing Jason Ehler and Ashley Brown, told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet.

“This cyberbullying certainly adds an extra layer to that.”

Three-year-old Dylan Ehler was playing in his grandmother’s yard when he disappeared on May 6, 2020. Search and rescue teams found his boots nearby within hours of his disappearance. The search initially focused on the Salmon River and the area around Lepper Brook, which feeds into the river.

The active search for Dylan lasted almost two weeks, but there has been no trace of him since.

The active search for Dylan was called off on May 12, 2020, six days after his disappearance. (Submitted by Ashley Brown)

In the weeks and months that followed, some have accused the boy’s parents of negligence leading to his disappearance. Others have accused them of orchestrating his disappearance, or even killing their own son.

Many of these discussions happened over Facebook, where one group dedicated to the case had more than 17,000 members.

Harris, who is representing the couple pro bono, said she will try to make use of Nova Scotia’s Intimate Images and Cyber-protection Act to stop users from making further online posts and threats.

While some Facebook groups have been shut down and some critics have relented, Harris said the parents are still putting up with these comments.

“It has lessened, but it hasn’t stopped. And that’s why we’re here today,” she said.

Offensive or unlawful?

The Intimate Images and Cyber-protection Act was enacted in 2018, five years after the death of Rehtaeh Parsons. The Dartmouth teen died by suicide after being subjected to years of cyberbullying and revenge porn.  

Only one case has been decided under the act, so there’s not a lot of guidance on the difference between online comments that are simply offensive and those that are illegal.

“There is no clear line,” said Harris. “We are going before the judge to ask for an order, and we’re putting all of this evidence before the judge to try and find that line. We believe it’s been crossed.”

Harris is representing Dylan Ehler’s parents, Jason Ehler and Ashley Brown, pro bono. (Submitted by Allison Harris)

Harris said she hopes to get an order from the judge that would require the respondents to stop making further posts and to take down or archive any existing posts, including the Facebook groups fostering the behaviour.

Cyberbullies can’t be criminally charged through this process. However, Harris intends to ask for special aggravated and punitive damages, which she described as “money to compensate the applicants, my clients, for the harm that has been done and potentially as a tool to punish the people for doing this.”

Harris is due to appear before a judge on Tuesday, who will determine how the action will proceed. Harris expects further court dates to be set at that time.