A Northern Ireland court has barred a Belfast newspaper, Sunday Life, from publishing unpixelated photos of the perpetrator of a sex related murder who is now being released after serving out his sentence. It had been the paper’s intent to publish pictures to enable the public to identify the man should he end up in their community. At issue is the conflict between the desire of the public to know the criminal history of their neighbours and the impact of such privacy violations on an individual’s ability to reform and reintegrate with society. Many Canadians can best relate to this debate in the context of the high profile release of Karla Homolka and the ensuing media attention over her whereabouts and actions.
In this case, the Judge considered two legal principals as the basis for the injunction, misuse of private information and harassment. Under the head of misuse of private information it was uncontested that the individual had an expectation of privacy. However, the Judge must balance this privacy interest against the public interest of disclosure. The evidence put forward showed that this public exposure tends to “…increase the risks to the public by undermining the home, employment and support networks of offenders who are being rehabilitated” and concluded that “[i]f public humiliation and identification of his precise whereabouts increases risks to the public then that is a course which is counter productive irrespective of the fact that the plaintiff does not deserve any sympathy.”
The tone and content of the paper’s prior reporting on the convict was also significant in the decision. The Judge found that it was “calculated to and did engender considerable public hostility and animosity towards” the man, and had been without balance.
The debate over whether and to what degree convicted offenders, particularly sexual offenders, should be monitored after release remains strong. Many States in the U.S. have strict ‘Megan’s Laws‘ that enable the publication and tracking by the public of offenders’ whereabouts. Other jurisdictions have taken a much less public approach with reported information remaining restricted to law enforcement officials.
While publication over the Internet did not play a role in this case, it plays a significant role in disseminating this information in the U.S. where laws promote public disclosure. The Internet’s reach and accessibility enhance both the positive and negative effects of publication and can therefore make reaching a balance more difficult.
Canadian courts, in the separate context of publishing photo evidence from a trial, have had to consider the balance between the privacy interest in the photos and the needs of new reporting. This balancing has resulted in publication being allowed as well as denied.