There’s Nothing in That Name

This morning, the Supreme Court delivered a decision that is a further small step in the debate about the right of litigants to privacy and the right of the public to know what goes on in our courtrooms. I blogged about these issues here and here.

The applicant in the case, A.B. v. Bragg Communications Inc., 2012 SCC 46, is a teenage victim of cyber-bullying. Someone created a fake Facebook profile using her name and picture and wrote all manner of nasty things there. In order to sue that person for defamation, she applied for a court order to compel the internet provider associated with the I.P. address that was used to create the fake profile to disclose the name of the person to whom the address belonged. As part of that application, she also requested the right to proceed anonymously and a ban on the publication of the contents of the fake profile.

The internet provider did not oppose this application, but Global Television and the Halifax Herald did oppose the application for the right to proceed anonymously and the publication ban. They succeeded both at first instance and on appeal, with the courts concluding that the applicant failed to show how the publication of her name and details of the bullying she suffered would harm her. (The media then failed to defend their position before the Supreme Court, which appointed an amicus curiae to do it. Perhaps it dawned on them, rather late in the game, that this was not the best case to defend the freedom of the press.)

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal in part, in a unanimous decision by Justice Abella, holding that evidence of harm to the individual applicant was not necessary in a case such as this to support the right of the applicant to proceed anonymously. “Objective harm”―that is, a legal presumption of harm―is sometimes enough to justify banning the publication of certain details about legal proceedings. This is a case that warrants drawing the presumption. The law is especially solicitous of children’s privacy because it recognizes their vulnerability, and “[i]t is logical to infer that children may suffer harm through cyberbullying” (par. 20). Furthermore, says Justice Abella (par. 20)

we must consider the resulting inevitable harm to children — and the administration of justice — if they decline to take steps to protect themselves because of the risk of further harm from public disclosure.

As for the public interest in open courts, it is not much affected by allowing a victim of cyber-bullying to proceed anonymously. Just as in sexual assault cases where the publication of the victim’s identity is prohibited, the media can still attend the hearings, see and hear the evidence, and present the details of the case, except the victim’s name, to the public. Once the applicant is allowed to proceed anonymously, there is no need for a further publication ban, says Justice Abella, because the harm that she might suffer would result from tying the allegations of the fake profile to her, and not for their mere airing.

That seems like the right decision, so far as it goes. The interesting question, however, is whether it can go further. There is some ambiguity, as is usual in common law cases, especially those addressing novel issues, about which of the arguments that the decision relies on are essential and which are not. In other words, is this a case about cyber-bullying of children, or about any form of unpleasantness involving children, or about cyber-bullying generally, or about something broader still?

The decision makes much of the special vulnerability of children and of the special harms of cyber-bullying. But must the two be present in a case in order to trigger the presumption that harm to the victim will result from the publication of his or her name? What if the case is about old-fashioned schoolyard bullying? Or what if it’s cyber-bullying, but the victim is an adult? Justice Abella also mentions the risk that victims will be discouraged to come forward if the nasty things said about them will end up all over the media. That’s surely right, and not only in cyber-bullying (and sexual assault) cases. It affects defamation cases generally, for instance, since the media is entitled to report on the allegedly defamatory statements if they are the object of litigation. And the idea that the harm to freedom of expression and freedom the press from the anonymization of court cases is minimal can be applied in all sorts of cases, as I discuss in my previous posts on this topic.

Only future cases will tell what the courts will make of these possibilities.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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