Lawyers debate press freedom versus privacy



Lawyers Bert Bruser (Left) and Jonathan Richardson (Right) debate about how much is too much information for the public

Newspapers like the Toronto Star invade people’s privacy regularly when important matters of public interest are involved, the newspaper’s lawyer said during a recent debate at Ryerson University.

“I fear that (privacy concerns) will create rules and regulations that inhibit and prevent the media from publishing what is in the public interest,” Bert Bruser said during the debate, where he took on fellow lawyer Jonathan Richardson.

Bruser, the Toronto Star’s newsroom lawyer, and Richardson of the Ottawa law firm Augustine Bater Binks LLP, sparred over the issue of press freedom versus privacy in front of a crowd of about 70 students, faculty, lawyers and guests last Friday.

The event, “Be it resolved that press freedom trumps privacy,” was held as part of the Press Freedom in Canada conference organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Ryerson Law Research Centre. Avner Levin, the chair of the law and business department at the Ted Rogers School of Management, moderated the discussion.

Richardson argued that often there is no public interest at stake and in those situations privacy concerns should prevail. Bank account balances, credit card statements and social insurance numbers are among the information available on court documents for divorce cases, he pointed out. While the public may want to know this information, they do not need to know it. And in many cases, he said, it is simply an invasion of privacy.

“This is the question that I have:  To what end does all this data need to be publicly accessible?” Richardson has first hand experience with the issue: Last year he represented convicted sex killer Col. Russell Williams’ wife in court. He successfully fought to keep her divorce file closed to the public, but a subsequent court ruling overturned parts of the publication ban.

Richardson cited the recent case involving Public Safety Minister Vic Toews as another example where privacy was invaded for no good reason: details of the minister’s messy divorce were tweeted far and wide by someone who took the material from court documents that are publicly available.

The wealth of information freely available in divorce proceedings– particularly banking information – also leaves people open to identity theft, Richardson warned.

Bruser, however, argued that “the notion that you can go to court and keep things secret is abhorrent, unless there’s a compelling need to keep it secret.

“Who is going to decide what’s secret and what isn’t?”

He cited the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which imposes a publication ban on the identity of youth in the court system, as an example of a case where privacy does need to be protected.

“(But) my view is that the fewer restrictions we have, the better off we are.”

Bruser outlined a number of cases where he said the The Star deliberately decided to act in ways that were “clear and deliberate invasions of (individuals’) privacy” in the name of public interest.

In one case, the newspaper decided to publish – with the family’s consent – the name of a woman with Alzheimer’s who was raped by a staff member at the nursing home where she lived.

In another story, an undercover reporter uncovered abuse in a retirement home. As part of the story, the newspaper published the photo of an elderly man lying helplessly on the floor of the facility.

Bruser argued that in each of these cases it was necessary to put a human face on the stories to increase their impact and bring about changes in public policy.

At the end of the lively discussion, Levin asked for a show of hands to determine the winner of the debate. In a room full of journalists and press freedom advocates, Bruser easily won out over his opponent.

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