CANADA

Leaks in a gag order

Banned details of Karla Homolka’s manslaughter trial flood into Canada

D’ARCY JENISH December 13 1993
CANADA

Leaks in a gag order

Banned details of Karla Homolka’s manslaughter trial flood into Canada

D’ARCY JENISH December 13 1993

Leaks in a gag order

Banned details of Karla Homolka’s manslaughter trial flood into Canada

As a television viewer, Toronto resident Mark Langton admits to being both old-fashioned and price conscious. The 30-year-old newspaper editor uses a rooftop antenna to bring in about 15 television stations free of charge rather than paying a monthly cable fee for access to about twice as many stations. But one night last week, Langton watched newscasts from Buffalo, N.Y., that most cable subscribers in southern Ontario could not see.

They concerned the trial of Karla Homolka, the 23-year-old St. Catharines, Ont., woman convicted in July of manslaughter in the gruesome deaths of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. Most cable companies blacked out the story rather than risk violating a publication ban imposed by an

Ontario judge to ensure that Homolka’s estranged husband, Paul Teale, 29, receives a fair trial on first-degree murder charges. “Everybody else on my street who has cable had snow on their screens,” said Langton. “But there’s no way to jam signals picked up by antenna.”

The Buffalo newscasts came during a week of intense American media interest in the sensational Teale-Homolka case. Atlantabased CNN, ABC’s World News Tonight and several prominent publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Buffalo News, the Detroit Free Press and USA Today carried detailed stories containing information covered by the ban. The Ontario government, which is responsible for enforcing the judge’s order, asked Canada Customs to seize newspapers at the border, while Canadian cable companies blacked out the American signals. But the proliferation of new and sophisticated ways of distributing information has severely undermined the ban. By using computerized bulletin boards and news services, satellite dishes and faxes, tens of thousands of Canadians gained access to at least some of the forbidden American coverage. “I don’t think there is any way in an

age of electronic media to impose a ban,” said Kirk Varner, vice-president of news at Buffalo television station WIVB, which carried several reports on the case. “It’s like the Berlin Wall. It kept people in, but it couldn’t keep ideas out.”

For the Ontario government, the deluge of American media coverage quickly became an administrative nightmare—and a political embarrassment. Despite seizing newspapers and intercepting television signals, the government could not stem the flow of electronic information. That deluge began on Nov. 23, when the prestigious Washington Post published a lengthy story on the Teale-Homolka case. The Post story was available in Canada through computerized information services even as the newspaper itself was being printed, and well before it ever would have reached Canadian newsstands in normal circumstances.

The first available source of the Post story was CompuServe Inc., one of the world’s largest computer information services. The Columbus, Ohio-based company offers its customers up to 1,700 services, including stock market quotations, weather reports, airline schedules and news wire services, as well

as The Washington Post. Its 45,000 Canadian subscribers include companies and individuals. Jane Torbica, a corporate communications officer with CompuServe, said that for $12 a month, customers receive unlimited access to a package of basic services. She added that the company has no way of knowing how many Canadian customers used the system to obtain access to the Post’s story on the TealeHomolka case.

Within a couple of days of publication, that story was also available to users of university computer systems across the country, according to David Sutherland, director of computing and communications services at Ottawa’s Carleton University. They could obtain the Post account through Internet, a rapidly expanding computer network that links universities, research institutes and businesses and is used by up to 30 million people in 135 countries—including an estimated 100,000 in Canada. But Sutherland noted that neither governments nor university computer systems specialists can control the information available on Internet because users put the equivalent of 25 medium-sized novels into the system every day. “We don’t pretend to maintain control,” he said. ‘The technology has outgrown us completely.”

Other Canadians have relied on Canada Post, photocopying machines, satellite dishes and video cassette recorders to obtain and distribute information about the case. Gordon Domm, a 57-year-old retired police officer from Guelph, Ont., obtained a copy of The Buffalo News story in the mail, made 200 photocopies, and mailed them to acquaintances across Canada. Domm earlier mailed out 50 video copies of the New York television tabloid show A Current Affair, which in late October devoted an entire half-hour segment to the Teale-Homolka case. Canadian stations and American border stations that broadcast the show into Canada substituted other programming to avoid breaking the ban. Domm, who heads a group that is critical of the justice system, had invited police to charge him. Late last week, they granted his wish and charged him with two counts of breaking the ban.

With so much information flowing into the country, a frustrated Premier Bob Rae criticized the American media’s “disrespect” for the Canadian judicial system, and his attorney general, Marion Boyd, criticized the media “feeding frenzy” surrounding the case. Some prominent defence lawyers, too, insisted that the ban should be maintained. Brian Greenspan, Toronto-based chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said the restrictions are necessary to ensure that Teale receives a fair trial before an impartial jury. “The attention the ban is receiving is unprecedented,” he said, “but I still think it makes sense.” Still, in the age of electronic information, some legal principles are becoming increasingly difficult to impose—and to enforce.

D’ARCY JENISH