Coalition battles libel chill in top court

A coalition that includes the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) and Ad IDEM/Canadian Media Lawyers Association is intervening in a case before the Supreme Court of Canada, asking the court to reject the expansion of libel laws.

According to a CAJ news release, the case, Malhab v. Diffusion Métromédia CMR, goes back to 1998 when Quebec radio host Andre Arthur made offensive comments about Arab and Haitian taxi drivers and the cab drivers’ association launched a class action law suit. The drivers were awarded damages, but later Quebec’s court of appeal ruled that although outrageous, the comments “did not meet the test of defamation.”

The Supreme Court of Canada case summary explains:

“The majority of the Court of Appeal allowed the Respondents’ appeal on the issue of whether injury had been sustained and dismissed the Applicant’s incidental appeal on the issues of punitive damages and the fee agreement. The majority found that an ordinary citizen who had heard the comments in issue would have concluded that they were not defamatory. The dissenting judge found that they were defamatory, were directed against Arabic-speaking and Haitian drivers, and had caused individual injury to each driver in the circumstances.”

CAJ president Mary Agnes Welch said in the news release:

“We may find Mr. Arthur’s comments distasteful, but it makes no sense to restrict free speech in order to punish one person’s ignorant generalizations. Rewriting Canada’s libel laws to include groups could stifle genuine public debate and kill news stories that are in the public’s interest.”