On March 4, 2016, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website published a story about an Alberta adolescent who had been murdered.
It was a standard piece of crime reporting, featuring a photo, the young woman's name and some personal details. But it also spawned a legal fight, and now the Supreme Court has weighed in to strike a small but nonetheless meaningful blow for press freedom in siding with the CBC.
As is custom in matters involving youths, the Crown obtained a publication ban on the victim's identity when a suspect was arraigned a few days later. It then demanded the public broadcaster take down its report and, when the CBC refused, charged it with criminal contempt of court.
The Crown took the extra step of seeking an interim injunction to force the CBC to comply, which the Supreme Court says was not justified. (The Globe and Mail is among the media that intervened in support of the CBC.)
In a 9-0 ruling, the Court established that because of the limits they wish to place on free speech, applicants in such cases must provide "strong prima facie" evidence to support redress – in other words, they must have the goods to win an eventual case. The Alberta Crown didn't.
As a corollary, the ruling also serves to uphold an important principle: that preserving a public record of news events is fundamental to both democracy and responsible journalism.
Stories online can and should be updated, corrected or even retracted in rare cases of reporting malfeasance, but the government must not have the power to order them disappeared or see their original form altered willy-nilly.
The criminal contempt case at the heart of the argument is still in the provincial appellate stages – the CBC won in Court of Queen's Bench last spring. Hopefully the justices will bear Friday's ruling in mind, should the broader matter of contempt eventually come before them.