Angry bloggers learn web isn't licence to libel

By Shannon Proudfoot
Ottawa Citizen
Mar 18, 2006

The rapid rise of amateur commentators mounting the soapbox of Internet blogs has led to a small, but growing number of online libel cases.

It used to be that only established media and publishing organizations had to worry about libel, but now anyone with web access and a quick temper can find themselves facing a lawsuit.

"The Internet is the single most important reason for the increase in the number of libel lawsuits in this country," says Roger McConchie, a Vancouver-based Internet and libel lawyer. Libel is defined as an unjustified statement that damages someone's reputation by exposing them to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

On his website, Mr. McConchie maintains a database of the Internet libel cases in which damages are awarded in Canada, but he says the list is only "the tip of the iceberg," because the vast majority of cases are resolved before they ever reach a courtroom.

According to his statistics, damages have been awarded in two Internet libel cases so far in 2006, as compared to three traditional libel suits. Last year, only one of the 22 libel cases in which damages were awarded involved Internet material, which Mr. McConchie attributes to the slow and sometimes uneven progress of the court system.

In 2004, eight cases of Internet libel ended with damages being awarded, while five Internet cases resulted in damages in 2003.

By contrast, a total of just five Internet libel cases were brought to verdict in the four years before that.

Bruce Carr-Harris, a defamation lawyer in Toronto, says that Internet libel is a complex and ever-shifting area of Canadian law, because it is so new the courts are still working out how to deal with its myriad issues.

"Five years ago, it was almost unheard of, but now it's not unusual," he says.

Mr. McConchie says most Internet libel cases in which damages are awarded are those in which the person responsible for the offensive material refuses to remove it once they are warned that it may be defamatory. Even if they get into legal trouble over a blog entry or discussion-board posting, most amateur Internet authors can avoid a full-blown court case with some common sense and willingness to compromise, he says.

However, Mr. McConchie says the activist atmosphere of the online world sometimes prevents defamatory posters from backing down.

"They will take a rigid position that they're speaking on principle and they're going to stick by their free-speech rights -- failing to recognize that there are boundary lines to what you can publish," he says.

Even when significant damages are awarded in Internet libel cases, plaintiffs are unlikely to collect the money, because it is likely owed by an individual who has no real assets, rather than a well-financed media conglomerate. In these cases, Mr. McConchie says the real victory of a verdict is getting an injunction that forces the poster to remove the offending material.

That was the situation in a case decided by the British Columbia Supreme Court in January. The court awarded $676,000 in total damages to 11 plaintiffs -- most of them teachers in southern B.C. -- who were defamed by a series of online attacks from Susan Halstead, a parent in the school system. She made unfounded allegations of drug and alcohol abuse, incompetent teaching and serious behaviour breaches, as well as creating a "Least Wanted Educators" website.

David Halme, a teacher with 35 years' experience and president of the Lake Cowichan Teachers' Association, was shocked to find his own name posted on the website. Ms. Halstead had his name confused with someone else's, but she refused to remove the posting, so Mr. Halme rallied a group of teachers who had also been the subject of attacks, and they launched a libel suit.

"We're not using (the verdict) to hamper parents in their ability to object to the behaviour of teachers. We're just saying that you can't go out there and systematically destroy somebody's career," he says.

As Mr. Halme learned when he suddenly feared for his reputation as an educator, what makes online vitriol especially damaging is the boundless reach of the web. Geographical distance is meaningless online, and increasingly comprehensive search engines mean that even obscure website postings can be easily discovered. In a world where "Google" is a verb for everyone from prospective employers to blind dates, nasty Internet accusations have a major potential to affect people's lives.

"If there are skeletons, they're now on the web -- they're not in the closet," Mr. McConchie says. "It's like an encyclopedia of dirt."

Miriam Smith, a lawyer who teaches media law and ethics at San Francisco State University, says the Internet has given "passive-aggressive" people a public forum in which to vent with apparent anonymity, making vicious and potentially libelous statements more likely.

"There's a whole segment of the population who all of a sudden have the megaphone they've been seeking," she says. "It's technology-enhanced gossip."

The first documented case of Internet libel was settled in a Canadian court in 1995, when a judge awarded Julian Fantino -- then the police chief in London, Ont. -- $40,000 in damages. Mr. Fantino, who later became police chief in Toronto, sued Joe Baptista, a self-described harasser of police and government officials, for sending e-mails and faxes describing the chief in a variety of unflattering ways and alluding to unsubstantiated misconduct.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006