3. Publication Bans vs. Public Interest

In principle, the idea of withholding information is often in conflict with the public interest. As the Canadian Association of Journalists asserts: “the public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests…However, there are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, and the rights of all citizens to be informed about matters of public interest.” [1] Although determining what is in the public interest is subjective, it is generally accepted among media that the term covers matters that affect the lives of readers beyond basic curiosity or intrigue, or that carry a degree of well-documented controversy.

According to Jobb, news organizations “should bear in mind the underlying intent of a ban to balance rights and interests and, in most instances, to delay publication until those rights and interests are no longer at risk.” [2] In Rehtaeh’s case, journalists, members of the public, legal representatives and her parents agreed that publishing her name would have no effect on the accused’s right to a fair trial. It has frequently been asserted that the victim would have wanted her name released to the public.

Clearly, the media as well as the Parsons family argued that lifting this particular publication ban was in the public interest, and that withholding Rehtaeh’s name was not. But the judge found that the decision was out of his hands, given that publication bans in child-pornography cases are automatic, mandatory and irrevocable. Campbell ruled that he was bound “to impose the ban even if no one asks for it, no one wants it, no one thinks it makes any sense at all, and it will have no real effect. Whether there are exceptional circumstances is irrelevant. Whether the ban is enforceable is irrelevant.” [5]

The judge found that the risk of providing an exception for publication bans on the identities of child pornography victims was too great to justify bending the law in this case: “When judges stretch the law to accommodate the needs of individual cases they risk creating precedents that are not what anyone intended.” [6] Alas, in this particular case, the interests of future victims had to be juxtaposed with the interests of the currently deceased victim, whose name was already widely circulated.

Listen: CBC reporter Blair Rhodes on weighing publication bans and the public interest 


Next: Social Media Take Up the Fight

1. Canadian Association of Journalists, “Ethics Guidelines.” June 2011. 
2. Dean Jobb, Media Law for Canadian Journalists (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2011), 280.
3. R. v. K.B., 2014. NSPC24. para 3.
4. R. v. K.B, para 22.
5. R. v. K.B, para 40.