When the round-faced girl with a downturned mouth and long, limp brown hair sat before a Toronto court last July and tearfully apologized for her role in Stefanie Rengel’s murder, journalists in the room knew they had to be very careful in their reporting. Bound by the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), they were prohibited from reporting the teen’s name or any other details that would identify her. The six-year-old act makes publishing that information illegal when a person under the age of 18 is accused of a crime.
Although the journalists couldn’t identify the young woman, her identity was no secret. Her name, Melissa Todorovic, had been leaked on Facebook days after Rengel was stabbed in the stomach repeatedly and left to die in the snow outside her home on New Year’s Day 2008. So was the name of the co-accused, David Bagshaw, who carried out the murder at the behest of Todorovic, his then girlfriend. And then there was the “Free Melissa Todorovic” page set up by the young girl’s supporters.
Under the act, identifying details about young offenders can’t be published (unless the offender is sentenced as an adult), whether it’s in The Globe and Mail or on Facebook. Making this information available to the public amounts to a criminal offence—which is likely news to the creators of many memorial sites. Last year, Corey Hafezi, who dated Rengel in middle school, set up the Facebook group “In Loving Memory of Stefanie Rengel.” When contacted about the site by the Toronto Star, he said he didn’t know his site was breaking the law, because some group members had posted the names of the accused. Hafezi thereafter deleted such posts when he saw them, sometimes checking the group as often as seven times a day. He subsequently warned visitors: “You are…reminded to remember that the law is in effect here. The YCJA is most definitely in effect.” But the breach had already happened; the names of the accused teens had been revealed to the group members and any other Facebook user who happened upon the online memorial.
Clearly, the YCJA hasn’t caught up with the technological reality of Facebook and Twitter, which makes the law increasingly difficult to enforce. As well, some journalists complain the act means they can’t produce full accounts of youth crime. So is it time to revamp the YCJA?
Some argue scrapping the publication ban might allow journalists to do their jobs better. Daniel Henry, senior legal counsel at CBC, for example, argues the viral—and often inaccurate—flow of information on the internet allows misinformation and half-truths to spread. He believes journalists should be able to write freely, instead of being forced to “dance around the details.”
Henry, who stresses his views about the YCJA are his own, not the CBC’s, praises the “well-meaning motivation” behind the act, which is to ensure that young offenders are given a fresh start at 18. But he thinks we should have a system that encourages accurate information and answers, as opposed to one that assists rumours.
Perhaps getting rid of the publication ban offers audiences a better understanding of the motives, family history and psychology that drive young people to commit gruesome crimes. Media lawyer Brian MacLeod Rogers suggests the ban “throws up a spectre of the anonymous troubled youth who at any time could pull out a knife and kill somebody.” Full disclosure, on the other hand, “actually helps to not only de-anonymize the crime, so it makes it more real, but also helps society to grapple with and understand what lies behind it.”
Henry agrees. “When a serious crime happens, people want to understand it better,” he says. “They want to know whether to be afraid for their kids when they walk out the door. They want to know what the face of crime looks like so they can rationalize it.”
Some journalists are equivocal. Star court reporter Peter Small says, “It’s really reasonable to give a certain level of protection. That’s the citizen in me talking. The journalist? You’re dying to tell the real story and publication bans often make it very difficult.” Readers tune out when reading about anonymous crime, he adds, and it’s often the identifying details that make a story compelling. “Who could forget that baby-faced Melissa Todorovic looking out at us,” Small says. “She was just a baby when she was telling this guy to kill Stefanie. I mean, that’s gripping.”
Those details can be so gripping some journalists think youth convicted of serious crimes shouldn’t be granted anonymity after a certain age. “Sixteen years old is fair game if you’re involved in a homicide, sexual assault or a string of robberies,” says Daryl Slade, the Calgary Herald‘s justice reporter, who’s been writing from the courts for 15 years. He agrees that younger teens who make youthful mistakes should be protected but, after 16, the right to print an offender’s name and picture “should almost be automatic.”
The Globe‘s Christie Blatchford has covered more high-profile trials involving youth during her 26-year career than almost any other Canadian reporter. Yet, she doesn’t believe the law is an impediment to accuracy. “You do get the full picture,” she says. “The only thing the YCJA really protects is the name.” She firmly believes in the anonymity the act bestows on young offenders and she’s never been tempted to break the law—so much so that she sometimes uses initials of the accused when she’s talking to editors. She didn’t even write Todorovic’s full name in her notebook. When names are leaked online, it makes a “mockery of what we all do in respecting the law” Blatchford says. “It’s frustrating to be the old-fashioned guy playing by the rules and have other people not. Everybody is a journalist today,” she adds, indignantly. “If everybody is a journalist, then everybody plays by the same fucking rules.”
However, Blatchford thinks most teenagers who use Facebook don’t know—or don’t care—the law exists. Henry suggests since the names of young offenders are repeatedly leaked online, this makes the law nearly impossible to enforce, another reason he argues we should get rid of the publication ban. But defence lawyer Marshall Sack, who represented Todorovic, says even though some flout the law, it should remain in place because there’s a basic expectation that most people will follow it. Besides, you can’t stop teens from talking. “Kids are going to gossip—it’s cafeteria gossip,” he says. “Instead of saying it on the telephone and texting each other, they’re going to put it on Facebook. But does any adult really look at Facebook?”
There are more adults on Facebook than Sack assumes. The social networking site has more than 12 million Canadian subscribers and the fastest-growing group of users is over 35, a demographic that includes people who could potentially be selected for a jury.
Sack doesn’t know how to fix the problem, but he’s certain getting rid of the law is not the answer. Same for Blatchford. However, she too doesn’t believe that justifies dismantling the YCJA: “Because some people are breaking the law or choosing to ignore the law, therefore the law is stupid and we should all break it?”
About the author
Jenny Vaughan was the Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.