Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Supreme Court of Canada To Bloggers: Act Responsibly

The Supreme Court of Canada explicitly addressed bloggers in two companion decisions yesterday that may well have revolutionized Canada's libel law landscape by adopting a new "responsible journalism" defence into Canada's common law.

Chief Justice McLachlin articulated the new rules of the road - for bloggers and traditional journalists, alike - in Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (CanLII), 2009 SCC 6:
[62 ...The press and others engaged in public communication on matters of public interest, like bloggers, must act carefully, having regard to the injury to reputation that a false statement can cause. A defence based on responsible conduct reflects the social concern that the media should be held accountable through the law of defamation. As Kirby P. stated in Ballina Shire Council v. Ringland (1994), 33 N.S.W.L.R. 680 (C.A.), at p. 700: “The law of defamation is one of the comparatively few checks upon [the media’s] great power”. The requirement that the publisher of defamatory material act responsibly provides accountability and comports with the reasonable expectations of those whose conduct brings them within the sphere of public interest. People in public life are entitled to expect that the media and other reporters will act responsibly in protecting them from false accusations and innuendo. They are not, however, entitled to demand perfection and the inevitable silencing of critical comment that a standard of perfection would impose. (emphasis added)
This appears to be the first time the Court has directly addressed Canada's bloggers, although a CanLII search did disclose one previous reference to blogs by the court. See its June 2008 ruling in WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson, 2008 SCC 40, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 420:
[73] This is all the more true in an age when the public is exposed to an astounding quantity and variety of commentaries on issues of public interest, ranging from political debate in the House of Commons, to newspaper editorials, to comedians’ satire, to a high school student’s blog. It would quite simply be wrong to assume that the public always takes statements of opinion at face value. Rather, members of the public must be presumed to evaluate comments in accordance with their own knowledge and opinions about the speaker and the subject of the comments. (emphasis added)

Thus, it appears that from the vantage point of the Supreme Court, Canada's archetypal blogger has now, finally and gratefully, moved beyond high school.

Happy graduation.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

Update:

Also see James Morton and Warren Kinsella on these SCC rulings.

- GJW

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