The wife of the serial killer Russell Williams had a strong case, at least on the surface, when she asked for a publication ban on information from her divorce proceedings. She is, after all, a victim, too. And she needs a divorce to move on with her life. There’s a public interest in allowing that to happen. Indeed, a judge had granted her a publication ban to protect her from publicity.
But Ontario’s highest court threw out that ban – not because it thinks press freedom is more important than personal autonomy, but because it insisted on rigorous scrutiny of claims that a publication ban is necessary. The Ontario Court of Appeal demanded not just speculation but real evidence that Mr. Williams’s wife would suffer serious emotional harm. And the evidence fell short.
Too often, trial judges have said, with apparent sincerity, that publicity is the soul of justice – and then imposed a publication ban based on speculative harm. But the appeal court was unimpressed by evidence from the woman’s psychiatrist, partly because he made assumptions about what had been in the media about her (he hadn’t followed the coverage), and about future media harassment if information from the divorce proceedings was public.
Openness helps ensure that divorce proceedings are conducted with fairness. In this case, media organizations have expressed interest in how Mr. Williams’s military pension will be divided. It would have been easy, the court suggested, to shrug off the harm to the principle of openness: “A court faced with a case like this one where decency suggests some kind of protection . . . must avoid the temptation to begin by asking: where is the harm in allowing the respondent to proceed with some degree of anonymity and without her personal information being available to the media?”
The constitutional stakes are high in press-freedom cases, the appeal court said, and it makes little sense to impose publication bans based on speculation about the harm of publicity.