Alberta judge finds CBC not guilty of criminal contempt over publication ban


EDMONTON _ The CBC has been found not guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to remove news stories from its website that were published before a judge ordered a publication ban.

Court records say CBC Edmonton published stories in March 2016 about the death of a 14-year-old girl that included her name, photograph and some other personal information.

Later that month a provincial court judge ordered a publication ban on any information that could identify the victim in any way.

The ruling noted the CBC did not identify the girl after the ban went into effect, but it did not remove or change the earlier reports that could be accessed on its website.

The Crown then charged the CBC with criminal contempt.

Justice Terry Clackson of Court of Queen’s Bench said the CBC had the right and a duty to report the news in the stories it published before the ban.

He said the issue came down to whether the broadcaster was obliged to undo the news it had rightfully reported.

“When balanced against the Charter right of the CBC and the need for certainty in relation to criminal law, I have concluded that, on the facts of the case, allowing access to the impugned reports does not amount to publishing,” Clackson wrote.

“In the end, it is my view that the fact that CBC maintains the original articles in its archives, which can be accessed, does not amount to publication, transmission or broadcast.”

He noted the Alberta Court of Appeal’s public and media access guide states that publication bans only restrict publication, not access.

During the trial, a witness gave expert evidence on the ability of people to gain online access to published and archived stories, including social media users who disseminate mainstream media reports on services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Clackson said it is clear that anyone could seek out the stories by using a search engine such as Google that would direct them to the CBC website or other news websites.

He noted that even if the CBC had removed or edited the stories, the prohibited information could be accessed elsewhere.

One of the published stories had been shared more than 200 times before the ban.

Clackson said evidence shows that “it is practically impossible to remove a story once it is online.”

He dismissed the charge. Clackson concluded that the Crown failed to establish that the CBC violated the ban.

Chuck Thompson, head of CBC Public Affairs, said the corporation is satisfied with the verdict.

“We are pleased with the judge’s ruling and that he recognized the right and obligation of CBC News to report the news in this case,” he wrote in an email.

During the dispute, the Crown sought an interim injunction for the CBC to remove the content pending the outcome of the contempt case.

A judge denied the injunction, but the Alberta Court of Appeal granted the order, which was stayed pending an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Thompson said the appeal on the injunction will be heard in November.

Alberta Justice Department officials were not immediately available for comment.