Canada court increases libel protections

By Charmaine Noronha
Associated Press Writer / December 23, 2009

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TORONTO—The Supreme Court of Canada strengthened protections for journalists and bloggers in a pair of rulings, hailed as a victory for press freedom in a country with especially stringent libel laws.

Tuesday's rulings involving the Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen newspapers, created a new responsible journalism defense giving reporters more leeway to pursue controversial stories as long as they are deemed to be in the public interest.

In both cases, the justices ruled 9-0 in the newspapers' favor.

Lawyers called it a major step toward reducing so-called "libel chill," where journalists back away from contentious stories for fear of being sued.

The rulings mean journalists cannot be held libel for factual errors in stories deemed to be in the public interest so long as they take a series of steps, outlined by the court, to ensure fairness.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said Canada's existing libel defenses were too restrictive and contrary to the free expression guarantees in Canada's constitution.

"Freewheeling debate on matters of public interest is to be encouraged and the vital role of the communications media in providing a vehicle for such debate is explicitly recognized," McLachlin wrote in one of the two rulings. "While the law must protect reputation -- the current level of protection -- in effect a regime of strict liability -- is not justifiable."

One of the rulings upheld an Ontario Court of Appeal decision striking down Ontario businessman Peter Grant's $1.5-million Canadian (US$1.4 million) libel award against the Toronto Star and ordered a new trial.

A lawyer for the Star, Paul Schabas, told The Associated Press that the rulings are a major step toward bringing Canada's archaic defamation law into line with other nations like the United Kingdom and Australia.

"It's a historic decision. The most important libel decision ever decided by the Supreme Court of Canada," said Schabas.

Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter for The Toronto Star and journalism professor at Ryerson University praised the decision saying it would enable Canadian journalists to do far-reaching, controversial stories similar to their American counterparts.

"It's a fabulous victory, much anticipated and awaited," said Cribb. "I'm on the board of an American organization of investigative reporters and editors, and ... they are able to do stories that are more difficult for us to do here because the restrictions have been so tight so until now."

The other case, had to do with an Ontario Provincial Police officer who was awarded $125,000 Canadian (US$119,000) after the Ottawa Citizen produced a series of articles casting his unauthorized trip to New York City after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in a negative light.

The Supreme Court ordered a new trial striking down Danno Cusson's financial award. "It brings us into the 21st century," said Richard Dearden, a lawyer representing the Ottawa Citizen. "It's a huge victory for the freedom of press in terms of the types of stories you can publish up here and not be sued for libel."