Rights have responsibilities – sub judice and social media

28 Sep

When horrific things happen, society’s first instinct is to fix them. We want to grab the first solution that will salve our souls in the face of depravity and horror. The solutions always seem more visceral when the event is bad. We just want to fix it, possibly so we don’t have to contend with the thought that the world can be insanely and randomly cruel. Unfortunately, instincts are tape recordings looping in our brain from long ago, they don’t adapt to modern time or society, they just keep playing the same message. Instincts rarely give a sophisticated solution.

With the recent case of Jill Meagher’s intensely horrible death and subsequent arrest of a person believed responsible, we turn in our grief to look at the accused. The ransacking begins, a frenzied attempt to make sense of how someone could stray so far from society’s rules. We talk aloud on social media about the accused, sharing what we know, but more often just conjecturing on what we don’t.

As dozens of journalists, legal professionals and police have mentioned, any discussion about the accused should not occur because it hampers sub judice. Latin for “Under Judgement”, it generally applies to any case under investigation or prosecution. There are specific rules in place to ensure anyone accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial and forms part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Why does the accused have the right to a fair trial? Some may argue they don’t deserve it. Some may argue that it is in the public’s interest to know. The accused has a right to a fair trial to make sure the case is presented effectively, that they have a chance to present their case without bias and that, if at all possible, they have an even field to argue.

It is vitally important for any functioning, consistent and reliable society that its citizens exist within the rules and rights established. Rules and rights are for all, no matter how repugnant we find the person who needs them. Society does this because it is imperative it acts with an intelligence and compassion the guilty people have not shown, because these rules are just as imperative for the victims.

When people ignore sub judice, when they refuse to participate in the rules society expects of us, they effectively give a loophole to someone who may not deserve one. Loopholes are not innocence. Giving a loophole by disregarding sub judice, they are tainting the accused’s ability to stand trial and tainting the victim’s chance for justice.

It is interesting to compare this notion against the current furore surrounding data retention, a plan many are incredibly concerned about. With data retention, many stand to protect our individual rights to be online and yet, in contrast, so many are standing in the path of proper sub judice. One person on Twitter, who is against data retention, described sub judice laws as “archaic”, apparently thinking one human right is greater than another. It is possibly because they don’t think they’ll ever need the protection of sub judice, possibly because they judge their right to speak whatever they choose above a person’s right to a fair trial.

Human rights don’t work that way. They exist to give protection no matter the gender, race, class, ability or likeability of an individual. A human right exists due to its importance, not based on the probability of exercising it. By denying the human rights of someone facing trial, you are denying the rights of another human they have allegedly wronged.

It is also interesting to consider the power dynamic at play when people want their data to remain private, but don’t want to be restrained by notions of sub judice. The message is clear: “I have personal freedoms, but I won’t care about yours.” They want all of the rights, but none of the responsibility.

This may read like conflating two issues, but at its heart it is about the acknowledgement and adherence to human rights. In order to enjoy our personal human rights, we have to acknowledge them for others. Why? Because that’s how society works. It may not work perfectly, but to claim (as some social media identities have done) that the laws are archaic is to do a disservice to the rights of every citizen.

The argument may be brewing “why give rights to someone who took away the rights of another?” and the answer is the same: why take away even more rights from the victim by removing or diluting their chance for justice?

Want to honor Jill Meagher? Want to make sure we continue to have faith in the legal system and police force? Shut up. Social Media has shown that your words have power. Now take responsibility for them.

One Response to “Rights have responsibilities – sub judice and social media”


  1. Reddit’s Doxxing Paradox [Popehat] « Pesky Feminist - February 6, 2013

    […] I wrote on a similar topic a few months ago when an accused rapist and murderer’s right to sub-judice was decried as “archaic” by someone involved in fighting against data retention. […]

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