Have Rob Ford, Donald Sterling set a new bar for the court of public opinion?

The recent scandals surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling show how audio or video evidence of troubling behaviour by a powerful figure, no matter how reliable, can now make it easier to pass judgment in the court of public opinion.

Release of recordings of Toronto mayor and L.A. Clippers owner prompted widespread condemnation

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, left, and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling were at the centre of controversies recently after audio recordings of them expressing views many others considered abhorent were made public. (Reuters)

There's nothing new in high-profile figures getting knocked down a peg because of drugs, money, sex or strange views.

But the recent scandals surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling also show something else: how snippets of easily accessible audio or video evidence of troubling behaviour can so quickly sway the court of public opinion.

It is a phenomenon fuelled by the ubiquity of quick-recording cellphones and social media's ability to spread such evidence at warp speed, and it is once again redrawing the line between what is private and what is public behaviour. 

"It's very much a Wild West out there," says Robert Currie, an associate professor of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

"What's happening is that stories that are of interest of course are being brought to people's attention much more quickly now than they ever were before, just [with] the way social media works," he says. "And people are inclined to venture their opinions about these things."

Still, while he sees the court of public opinion only getting more powerful, he considers it too early to tell how that power will be controlled.

This time, after two new recordings emerged last week showing rude behaviour and apparent drug use by Ford, the Toronto mayor quickly took a leave of absence from City Hall, packed his bags and went off to rehab.

Public outrage was also directed squarely at Sterling, and the National Basketball Association wasted little time in banning him for life, after racist comments captured on tape were released through the gossip website

Not a lot of new ground

In both cases, it seems unlikely that Ford or Sterling would have suspected they were being recorded, or that their behaviour would somehow end up on public display. The recordings of Ford came from a restaurant and his sister's basement. Sterling's voice was captured in a phone conversation with a girlfriend.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appears smoking from a pipe in a still image given to the Globe and Mail and The people who made the video are trying to sell it for a six-figure price. (

And in both cases the developments weren't covering a lot of new ground. Similar recordings of Ford saying questionable things have been heard before, and another tape, which has not been seen publicly, shows him smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine. Sterling's racist views were, similarly, widely known and had been the focus of legal proceedings in the past.

But when the latest recordings went public, the reaction was instant, and intense in both cases.

Jenna Jacobson, a social media researcher and PhD student at the University of Toronto, sees the situations around Ford and Sterling straddling the line that exists between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy.

"Privacy still exists and privacy is still important and that's why we have laws to protect people," she says. "But in the end once news is shared, however that news comes about, it's out there forever and it's in the hands of the public to judge.

"The public can be sponsors, in the case of Sterling, [and] vote with their wallets, and citizens of Toronto vote with their ballots, and that is how they will determine what is acceptable behaviour for public figures that represent a much larger group of people."

Finding a balance

Trevor Farrow, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says the challenge now becomes how to balance private space with public knowledge.

"To the extent that people's private lives are inappropriately drawn into the open — for example with unfair teenage cyber-bullying — serious privacy and fairness issues arise," he said in an email.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves his home on May 1, 2014, the day after he said he was taking a leave 'to seek immediate help.' (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"On the other hand, when matters of public interest are raised, typically involving public figures (politicians, public business and sports figures and the like), an informed and engaged population is typically a good thing."

Citizens who have more knowledge and are more engaged will ultimately encourage better leadership and behaviour by public figures, he suggests.

But with knowledge comes responsibility and power, he says. And it's not necessarily always best served by instant action.

"Fair process, including legal process, discourages a rush to judgment," says Farrow.

Others would also add the need for a healthy dose of skepticism directed at whatever may be flying around the Twittersphere.

"We're living in a time where skepticism is more important than it ever was," says Currie, who stresses the need for trust and verification of sources.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA after a recording of a conversation he had with girlfriend V. Stiviano was leaked to the public. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Indeed, the NBA acted only after it verified the voice on the tape in question was Sterling's.

"If they had made a decision based on rumour and speculation and innuendo and what I said on my Facebook account, that would obviously be improper," says Currie.

"But if they were able to satisfy themselves that this was a bona fide recording of this individual, and they made decisions based on that. Well, that's an administrative decision that an organization makes."

Currie cautions that it's important to realize the court of public opinion is not a court of law.

"It's not a decision-making body that has any actual impact in the legal sense."

But it may have an impact on people, creating evidence upon which organizations like the NBA can take action.

Why only now?

Still, as the Sterling episode hit its crescendo last week, there were those who questioned why the court of public opinion was getting so fired up now when Sterling's views weren't exactly unknown.

"What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise," basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in Time Magazine.

But Abdul-Jabbar, no fan of Sterling or his "sins," suggested it was time to take a look at the collective moral outrage in a mirror.

"In our quest for social justice, we shouldn't lose sight that racism is the true enemy."

Currie says it's too soon to know the implications of these kinds of quick, public judgments. He also cautions that people are often reacting to stories that aren't very detailed or in depth.

"It's not that there never was a rumour mill and not that rumours didn't spread like wildfire but it took longer than 10 minutes 10 years ago," he says.

"It's the speed that's new, but the speed does create a level of enormity that … is unlike anything we have ever seen."

And, it seems, unlikely to slow down any time soon.