19 April 2010

Taking responsibility – comments, courts and disclosure

A Nova Scotia court decision last week ordering The Coast to cough up details of people who left comments on the newspaper’s website caused a bit of a stir in some communities over the weekend.

The Telegram Saturday editorial takes up the issue, as does Telly editor Pam Frampton in her weekend column.  There’s also an editorial in Halifax’s major daily the Chronicle-Herald.

Each focuses on the the idea that people making comments online should not expect complete anonymity.  They should be expected to take responsibility for their words. As the Herald editorialist concludes:

The bottom line is that freedom of speech online has no exemption from the same legal limitations that exist everywhere else in society.

Amen to that, brothers and sisters.

But with your head suitably swollen with such lofty thoughts, go to The Coast website and look at what is actually there in the stories stories about the Halifax regional fire department and allegations of racism.

That’s where things get a wee bit more complicated.

For starters, the two people who sought the identities of the commenters were not just “two firefighters” as both the Herald and the Telegram opted to describe them. Rather they were the chief and deputy chief of the department.  Both are directly involved in a human rights case launched by a group of black firefighters that alleges not only that racism takes place with the regional fire department but also that senior officials did not act promptly to deal with the issues.

Next, take a look at the comments under the various Coast stories dating back to last spring. Unless the Coast has removed the comments – there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that -  it’s pretty hard to find one which connects the two applicants directly with alleged actions.

With that done, you should realise there might be more to this story than meets the eye.  Someone might want to take a hard look at the speed with which the judge in this case issued the order.  A similar case in Ontario – as the Herald notes – is still awaiting decision.

If nothing else,  people might want to consider the implication of any such easy order for whistleblowers, especially in a province  with no legal protection for disclosure of confidential information in the public interest. 

Again, the Herald raised that point but did nothing with it in the editorial. 

Nova Scotia provincial public servants are protected by a set of regulations but it doesn’t appear those protections extend to municipal employees. In Newfoundland and Labrador, public interest disclosure is looked upon, apparently, with the same disdain as any disclosure of information under the province’s access to information laws.  Although the current administration promised a whistleblower bill in 2007, there’s no sign one will come to the legislature while the current administration is in power.

Some commentators criticised the editors at The Coast for stating they will quickly comply with the court order.  The editors are right to do so.  If there is libel in the comments, then those defamed have the right to seek redress. No one should be able to make scurrilous, defamatory comments with impunity:  speech online ought to be subject to the same law as speech everywhere else in this country. 

At the same time, though, those same commentators ought to realise that free speech isn’t really threatened in this case.  Even in the worst scenario where now or in the future someone tries to silence legitimate speech with the chill of legal action, the Coast editors are likely to pursue that issue with the same vigour they have used thus far in tackling the allegations of racism within Nova Scotia society.

A free press stands alongside free speech as a means of ensuring that those in power are held to account.  Both are secure in this Nova Scotia example.