Why we shouldn’t ban citizen journalists from torture case

Robert Remington, an editor for the Calgary Herald, writes that a Calgary court’s recent ban barring the public and citizen journalists from a high-profile torture case is “potentially dangerous.”

Provincial court Judge Brian Stevenson ruled that only staff and accredited journalists can attend the preliminary hearing of Dustin Ward Paxton, who is charged with torturing, confining and sexually assaulting his 27-year-old roommate between Dec 1, 2008 and March 2, 2010.

“More reporting is always better than less,” Remington writes. He doesn’t think the ban will actually prevent information from leaking, either.

“Considering that other safeguards and protections are in place with respect to pre-trial publicity, the judge’s ruling is curious. In a trial, all jurors must swear an oath that they will make decisions based only on the evidence they hear in court. During jury selection, lawyers can also exclude jurors whose partiality may be in doubt. If the court has no confidence in these procedures, it might as well get rid of the jury system — something nobody in a democracy would advocate.”

Remington quotes a J-Source article (!) titled “The revolution will be plagiarized” , which found that nearly 60 percent of political stories on one site quoted material from traditional media. “The citizens are failing us”, J-Source wrote.

Remington also quotes University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney, who says that it’s “unreasonable” for anyone in the digital age to expect a juror won’t know anything about a case.

“It is a potentially dangerous thing to start making distinctions between accredited and non-accredited media and banning people from the courtroom based on speculative fears.”

Remington can see the judge’s point, of course: there are many examples of social media being used to breach publication bans.

“During the trial of a 12-year-old girl from Medicine Hat, Alta., who was charged with triple murder for killing her family, there was even a breach of a publication ban in a blog posted by a Canadian law school. I noticed it and advised the faculty that it might want to remove the posting, which was done immediately. Most anonymous bloggers wouldn’t even care, and the police and courts wouldn’t bother to prosecute.

“During the Medicine Hat case, I, too, got tripped up on a legality and had to beg for mercy from the judge, with my lawyer at my side. A scolding resulted. Meanwhile, an anonymous blogger, who attended daily, constantly breached the law throughout the trial, with no consequences.”

He writes that “Stevenson’s ruling serves notice to social media that it will be held accountable. It’s about time. As much as I’ll defend the free-speech rights of citizen journalists, anyone wanting to practise journalism should do so accurately, ethically and legally, especially when someone’s right to a fair trial is at stake.”