Interim board member endured nine month ordeal
just for doing her job

By Mike Mastromatteo
The Interim

Toronto journalist Sue Careless has finally found relief after a nine-month ordeal at the hands of police and Crown prosecutors.

Careless, who was arrested October 15, 1999 for covering a pro-life demonstration by long-time activist Linda Gibbons, learned July 28 that charges of obstructing a peace officer have finally been dropped. A veteran journalist with hundreds of published articles to her credit, Careless is a member of The Interim’seditorial advisory board.

Careless, along with writers Gord Truscott and Steve Jalsevac, was arrested and handcuffed outside the Scott abortion clinic while on assignment for The Interim. Despite identifying herself as an accredited journalist, Careless was hustled off to Toronto’s 51 Division, where she was photographed and fingerprinted. Her camera and film were seized by arresting officers, and although the camera was later returned, the film was not returned until early August.

The arrest and subsequent legal proceedings came despite the fact that the injunction preventing pro-life demonstrations near Ontario abortion clinics does not apply to journalists. At no time during the October 15 demonstration did Careless interfere with police officers on the scene.

Over the ensuring 41 weeks, Careless’ case required 13 separate court appearances. The experience hindered her ability to work as a freelance journalist. She estimates that the legal ordeal has cost her some 300 hours of freelance work.

In dropping the charges, the Crown admitted there was “no reasonable possibility” of a conviction. The Crown also said dropping the charges against Careless would be consistent with the withdrawal of charges five weeks earlier against Jalsevac and Truscott.

At an August 3 media conference, Careless and her defence counsel, Peter Jervis of Lerner and Associates, reflected on the nine-month ordeal. “The nine months were really more difficult than the original arrest,” Careless said. “One can handle three hours in detention, including the threat of a strip search, but being strung out in the limbo of the criminal justice system is abysmal.” She said all journalists, particularly freelance writers, should be concerned about her case.

Careless and Jervis contend that the arrest was unlawful from the outset. They wonder whether Careless was singled out for arrest because of her involvement with the pro-life news media. They believe the lengthy delay in dropping what was basically a fatuous, politically-motivated charge was as an attempt by the Crown and the police to muzzle freedom of the press.

“The most chilling aspect of this entire case is the possibility that Sue was arrested because she is identified with the pro-life media,” Jervis said at the August 3 media conference. He wondered if journalists with a major Toronto newspaper would have been arrested under similar circumstances. “The anti-abortion tag can make reporters much more vulnerable,” Jervis said, adding that reporters for all “non-mainstream” media seem to be at risk, especially if they are challenging the government’s position on a controversial issue.

Jervis, a constitutional law expert, has also defended Linda Gibbons in her campaign to challenge the validity of the injunction against pro-life demonstrations in Ontario.

The Careless case drew the attention of professional writers’ associations, most of which criticized the police and Crown action as a heavy-handed attempt to stifle freedom of the press. Rose Anne Hart of the Canadian Church Press Association suggested that such muzzling of journalists is more typical of military dictatorships, rather than modern democratic states.

Meanwhile, Victoria Ridout of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada reacted to the Careless arrest by questioning the motives of the arresting officers and the Crown. “We cannot help but wonder if this arrest would have taken place if Ms. Careless had been a staff reporter for one of the major daily newspapers, who have the legal resources to defend their journalists from police harassment,” she said.

The Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Book and Periodical Council also objected to the arrest and prosecution of Careless. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ executive director Boni Fox said the action of the police and the Crown represented “an appalling abuse of power in a democratic society [which] must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”

While Careless and Jervis welcomed the support of writers’ associations, they suggested the interest of mainstream journalists in Toronto has been lukewarm at best. “Individual columnists have been supportive,” Careless said, “but the story has been largely ignored by the major daily newspapers and electronic media.”

One significant exception was the Globe and Mail’s decision to print an opinion piece August 10 by Careless herself, reflecting on the implications of her case for freedom of the press in Canada.