The Supreme Court of Canada has overturned a court order that would have forced the CBC to remove information identifying a young murder victim in reports published on its website several days before a publication ban was issued.
The unanimous decision overturns an Alberta Court of Appeals ruling and finds that the injunction order was not valid, because the Crown had not proven a strong case that the CBC ultimately would be found guilty of criminal contempt.
"This is not an easy burden to discharge and … the Crown has failed to do so here," the judgment reads.
The case stems from the murder of a 14-year-old girl in Edson, Alberta in March 2016. The CBC published two online articles that included the victim's name and photograph before a publication ban was ordered.
Alberta's attorney general asked the CBC to remove the identifying information from the two stories after the ban was issued, but the CBC refused. The CBC did not identify the girl after the ban went into effect, but did not remove or alter earlier reports archived and searchable on its website.
The Crown alleged the CBC was in contempt of court and applied for an injunction requiring the CBC to temporarily remove the girl's personal information.
An Alberta judge has already found that the CBC was not guilty of criminal contempt over the publication ban.
That contempt ruling is being appealed, and the case is set to be heard in the spring.
CBC 'pleased' with ruling
Douglas Chow, corporate spokesperson for CBC/Radio-Canada, said the corporation is pleased with the ruling, which rejects the injunction requiring the removal of online archived material.
"It was our position that CBC's decision to publish the content was consistent with freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and that it was improper to require it to be removed from the public record," Chow said in a statement.
"Today's decision is an important one for news publishing in the digital era."
The Media Coalition, composed of major media publishers and broadcasters across Canada through newspapers, magazines, radio, television, internet and other new media, intervened in the Supreme Court case.
"The fact that new technologies such as the internet and online publication may allow for a publisher to edit the content of online stories, should not justify criminal charges or a mandatory injunction to remove or "unpublish" a previously published story, particularly when such sanctions infringe a media outlet's freedom of expression rights," the coalition had argued in a factum filed with the court.
Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell said that before digital publishing, content in newspapers was preserved in libraries and on microfilm. Trying to force a media outlet to "unreport" information is wrong, because the role of the media is to record history within the legal parameters that exist at that time.
"If it was published at the time and it was legal to be published, I don't see any reason why it should be retroactively taken away," he said.
Dan Laville, spokesman for Alberta's justice department and solicitor general, declined to comment on Friday's ruling but confirmed the contempt case for "refusing to remove the identifying information of a child victim" would proceed in June 2018.
"As this case is still before the court, it is inappropriate to comment at this time," he said.