VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) – As the bitter Canadian winter sets in, journalists can find warmth in two Canadian Supreme Court rulings on defamation complaints, an oft-used weapon in the corporate arsenal of the country’s power brokers. The rulings created a new defense in libel cases, based on “responsible communication” in matters of public interest, if the reporter can show “that he or she was diligent in trying to verify the allegation[s], having regard to all the relevant circumstances.”
The rulings ordered new trials in cases against the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star.
The case against the Star was brought by a property developer who sued after the paper ran a piece about how local residents near a proposed golf course expansion thought the project was “a done deal,” given the man’s strong political ties.
The case against the Citizen involved an Ontario police officer who sued after the newspaper printed articles about his “renegade” mission to New York City to help with rescue efforts at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorism.
The jury in the Citizen case ruled against the newspaper because some, though not all, of the allegations had been proven.
The jury in the Star case awarded the property developer nearly $1.5 million in damages after rejecting the paper’s truth-and-fair-comment defense.
In ordering new trials in both cases, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlan wrote in the Citizen case, released concurrently with the Star case, that the “law of defamation should be modified to provide greater protection for communications on matters of public interest.”
“The current law with respect to statements that are reliable and important to public debate does not give adequate weight to the constitutional value of free expression.”
Not surprisingly, the Canadian Association of Journalists, one of the many interveners in the case, applauded the decisions.
“Today’s ruling helps journalists do their jobs – bringing to light information that’s in the public interest with a better shield against a libel suit levied to block a controversial story,” CAJ president Mary Agnes Welch said in a statement.