The law is an ass, but must it bray so loudly?

Behold the compound stupidity that emerges from ill-made privacy law. There was a terrible murder near the entrance of Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald early Monday; the Edmonton Journal conducted a careful, sensitive investigation into the background of the victim, who had committed a murder himself in 2001. Because the Journal disclosed that the dead man had once been in foster care and that he had been a young offender, the broadsheet couldn’t report his name for fear of inviting reprisals from multiple levels of government. Meanwhile, every other news organ in town was left free to identify him precisely because they didn’t have, or didn’t tell, the full story. The law, in its infinite wisdom, endowed this lucky brute with privacy rights that did not expire with this death. But for whatever it might be worth, those rights did absolutely nothing to shield his identity from anybody.

It would be lovely if governments decided that concealing information about suspicious deaths, or indeed any deaths at all, is horrible public policy. Privacy provisions in Alberta’s child-welfare laws are particularly awful in this respect; they have repeatedly impeded newsgathering on the quality of foster care in this province—an exercise of the free press that could not possibly be more urgent. I would add that various police forces are rapidly embracing the repugnant habit of concealing the identities of corpses discovered in public places “at the request of their families”. This does not appear to be a matter of law at all; it is just improvised self-regulation. The reporter, presented with a blank wall of sentiment, never has any ready means of confirming that a family has made such a request, or, indeed, been consulted or located at all. If we are prepared to accept this obfuscation as a matter of routine, we might just as well give the cops an explicit license to cover up homicide, or, indeed, to commit it.

[UPDATE, 6:46 pm: the Edmonton Sun has withdrawn the name of the victim from its story, which is linked to above. Here’s how it reads now; here’s a screenshot from 6 am Eastern time today, courtesy of the Google cache. Note here that general knowledge of the name of the victim might actually, I dunno, help the police solve the crime.]

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