A judge has blocked Montreal police investigating a brutal killing from gaining access to a university researcher’s taped interview with the alleged killer, a decision that expands researchers’ rights to collect confidential information, much as journalists do.
The case involves Luka Magnotta, a stripper and porn actor whose alleged killing and dismemberment of 33-year-old student Lin Jun of China made international headlines. Parts of Mr. Jun’s body were mailed across Canada. In 2007, five years before Mr. Jun’s killing, Mr. Magnotta participated in a study by two University of Ottawa professors, Colette Parent and Christine Bruckert, on the sociology of sex work. An undergraduate student did an audio interview with Mr. Magnotta, who was one of 60 study subjects, and after the alleged killer’s picture surfaced in the media, the student contacted Montreal police.
Academic research, like investigative journalism, can provide “useful information on certain aspects of the human condition that are normally kept silent,” Justice Sophie Bourque of the Quebec Superior Court said in her ruling. She cited the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling last month that struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that academic studies helped provide the record of evidence that persuaded the court to protect prostitutes’ rights.
“This information is essential to understand and improve the social condition of vulnerable and marginalized communities,” she said. Such studies depend on promises of confidentiality being made and kept, she said. She also said that Mr. Magnotta, as a participant in the study, had a right to privacy. Neither researchers nor participants have an absolute privilege, or right to confidentiality; the benefits of such a privilege need to be weighed in each case against the costs to other important goals, such as fighting crime, Justice Bourque said.
Quebec prosecutors argued that the material would be helpful if Mr. Magnotta, who has pleaded not guilty and goes to trial next September, attempts to use a defence of not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder. But after looking at the transcript of the audiotape, Justice Bourque said any usefulness would be minimal, and the harm it would cause to academic research far outweighed the benefit.
Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer who represented the university researchers, said the ruling marks the first time a Canadian court has recognized a researcher-participant privilege, which he described as “vital to the ability of researchers to do studies on human behaviour and attitudes.”
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he is “overjoyed. This is such an important victory for the ability of researchers to serve the public interest.” He said studies of illegal behaviour, drug use and mental illness are among those that depend on promises of confidentiality.