Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ontario Appeal Court: Press Has "Public Interest Responsible Journalism" Defence to Libel

The Toronto Star reports on a landmark decision by the Court of Appeal for Ontario concerning libel and media rights:

The Ontario Court of Appeal has given the media new freedom to publish information the public has a legitimate interest in knowing – stories which, until yesterday, news organizations might have avoided for fear of being sued for libel.

In a decision described as a major breakthrough for freedom of the press in Canada, the court chiselled out what it calls a "new and distinctive" defence for journalists reporting on matters of public significance: The "public interest responsible journalism defence."

If a news organization can show it made every attempt to be fair and to confirm that the contents of a story are true, it has a defence to a defamation lawsuit, "even if it got some of its facts wrong," a three-judge appeal panel said in its unanimous decision.

The court said the traditional approach to the law of defamation – which favours the protection of a person's reputation over robust debate about public issues – is out of sync in a country such as Canada that values freedom of expression.

..."Democracy depends upon the free and open debate of public issues and the freedom to criticize the rich, the powerful and those, such as police officers, who exercise power and authority in our society," said Justice Robert Sharpe, who wrote the judgment.

.."The defence is plainly intended to shift the law of defamation away from its rigid reputation-protection stance to freer and more open discussion on matters of public interest and should be interpreted accordingly," said Sharpe, who was also writing on behalf of Justices Karen Weiler and Robert Blair.

The appeal court was ruling in a case involving former Ontario Provincial Police officer Danno Cusson, who sued the Ottawa Citizen and three of its reporters after the newspaper published a series of stories about his trip to New York in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Globe and Mail also covers this decision: Landmark ruling establishes principle of public interest.

The text of the Appeal Court's judgment is not yet available online. We'll post it when it is.

UPDATE: November 22, 2007 - See also:

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

Update: November 28, 2007:

The full text of the Court's decision in Cusson v. Quan is now available at CanlII.


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