Canadians are increasingly turning to the Internet to voice their opinions on a variety of issues, but many don’t know that what they say can get them into trouble. It is commonplace in Canada to watch American pundits and comedians speak harshly about their politicians and other people in the news. In a recent episode of his TV show Real Time, comedian Bill Maher said: “When I do an Obama joke, it’s not about all blacks. Just like when I do a George Bush joke, it’s not a swipe at all retarded people.” Did you know that making a similar comment about a public figure in Canada could land you in court facing a defamation suit?
Canadian journalist and lawyer Ezra Levant is no stranger to defamation lawsuits. In September, he received a statement of claim from Liberal lobbyist Warren Kinsella, which sought damages of $50 000 for a comment made on Levant’s blog. This is not the first time Levant has faced a suit like this. In fact, he’s currently dealing with three similar lawsuits. Likewise, in his former role as editor of the Western Standard, the magazine was threatened with an average of one defamation suit every month. “We received literally 50 defamation threats and none of them went anywhere,” says Levant.
The blog post in question discusses the support of some Jewish organizations and community leaders for human rights tribunals, which Levant regards as a vehicle of state censorship and a major impediment to freedom of speech. Buried at the end of the article, Levant mentions how Kinsella—in his role as member of the legal affairs committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC)—provided support for some members of the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), who Levant regards as anti-Semitic.
In the statement of claim, Kinsella’s lawyer claims the following passage to be defamatory: “Farber’s newest recruit to the CJC, Warren Kinsella, has provided political and media advice to the CIC’s young bigots-in-training, the ‘sock puppets’. Farber just verbally supports Elmasry. Kinsella – on the CJC’s legal affairs committee – actually rolls up his sleeve and helps the anti-Semites out a bit. This is the Canadian
Jewish Congress in 2008. How repulsive.” Kinsella’s council argues that Levant’s words are defamatory because they “explicitly state that [Kinsella] helps anti-Semites propagate hate and that he is a repulsive person.” Kinsella claims that the published words have harmed his reputation, and it is the protection of a person’s reputation that is the basis of defamation law.
Levant calls this type of lawsuit a “SLAPP suit,” or “strategic litigation against public participation,” the point of which is to silence public discussion and debate on a given topic through the use of frivolous lawsuits. Suits of this nature not only cost the parties and the court system a great deal of time and money, they also have the effect of chilling free speech. “He’d love it if it would silence me. I think it’s just to waste my time and my money,” says Levant.
Free speech is an essential component in a democracy because democratic government is based on the idea that the state is ultimately controlled by the people. Opinions and ideas must be free so that society can grow and flourish. Citizens should have the right to speak out against the state, its agents, and their elected officials in order to prevent tyranny and ensure that the state is making decisions that are in the best interests of the society.
“[Freedom of expression] is one of the fundamental concepts that has formed the basis for the historical development of the political, social, and educational institutions of western society. Representative democracy, as we know it today, which is in great part the product of free expression and discussion of varying ideas, depends upon its maintenance and protection,” writes Supreme Court Justice William Rogers McIntyre.