Blog vs. Blog: Ottawa judge throws out defamation lawsuit
By Andrew Duffy
The Ottawa Citizen
September 12, 2011 7:03 PM
OTTAWA — An Ontario Superior Court judge has tossed out a defamation suit launched by an Ottawa blogger, Dr. Dawg, who claimed that an Internet chat room post damaged his reputation by calling him a Taliban supporter.
Mr. Justice Peter Annis’s decision adds to the emerging body of law that governs the Internet’s unruly marketplace of ideas. It gives political bloggers new licence to slug it out online – and even employ the occasional low blow when the debate turns nasty.
“If this decision stands, it makes a Wild West saloon out of the blogosphere. It becomes a place where normal defamation law seems to be suspended,” said Ottawa blogger John Baglow, a.k.a. Dr. Dawg.
The retired bureaucrat and former executive with the Public Service Alliance of Canada vowed to appeal the decision.
Judge Annis ruled that Baglow was not defamed last year by a post that said he is “one of the Taliban’s more vocal supporters.”
The statement was made on the Free Dominion website in the course of an acrimonious debate — taking place on three websites over several days — about federal politics and the legality of Canadian Omar Khadr’s military trial in the U.S.
Free Dominion, a chat site that bills itself as “the voice of principled conservatism,” is operated by Mark and Connie Fournier of Kingston.
In an interview with The Citizen, Connie Fournier hailed the judge’s decision as an important victory for political bloggers.
“We feel the defamation law is outdated and really hasn’t progressed with technology,” she said. “So we think this is a step in the right direction. The judge acknowledged that a discussion in the blogosphere is a far different thing than publishing something in the Ottawa Citizen.”
Online political forums are honest, passionate and conversational, Fournier said, and should not be held to the same standard as other published material. “If you do that,” she said, “you’re really opening the way for a lot of frivolous lawsuits: the courts could be overtaken by people saying, ‘He called me an idiot.’ ”
Baglow, a left-wing political blogger, sued the Fourniers after they refused to take down the post, made by Roger Smith, of Burnaby, B.C., on Aug. 11, 2010.
Baglow said the post unfairly equated his call for Khadr’s repatriation with being a Taliban booster. Although opposed to the war in Afghanistan, Baglow said, he is a patriotic Canadian who considers the Taliban a dangerous, tyrannical regime.
The Fourniers, however, insisted the comment was a normal part of the rough-and-tumble blogosphere; they asked Judge Annis to dismiss the lawsuit before it went to court.
In his recent decision, Annis sided with the Fourniers, ruling the case raised no genuine issue for trial.
Given that the posting amounted to an opinion, rather than a statement of fact, it was less likely to damage Baglow’s reputation, the judge said, since opinions are not as readily believed.
What’s more, Annis said, in the context of a political blog in which insults and invective are regularly traded, the comment was not defamatory.
The judge noted that former NDP leader Jack Layton was often referred to in the blogosphere as “Taliban Jack” without legal consequences. “No reasonably informed Canadian would conclude that Mr. Layton was defamed by being called Taliban Jack, understanding that this was simply a catchy label attached to him by conservatives to showcase what they consider the weakness of the liberal argument in this political debate,” Annis said.
“Reasonably informed readers of these blogs would understand that labelling the plaintiff (Baglow) a supporter of the Taliban as performing the same function and would not consider the comment capable of lessening the reputation of the plaintiff.”
The judge said the blogosphere offers a different context for libel than books, magazines or newspapers. Internet blogging, he said, is “a form of public conversation” that allows people to respond immediately to defamatory statements.
To that end, Annis said, Baglow could have removed the sting of the offending post by a rejoinder that set out his opposition to the Taliban.
“More importantly to the issue of context,” the judge said, “the blogging audience is expecting and would indeed want to hear a rejoinder of this nature where the parry and thrust of the debaters is appreciated as much as the substance of what they say.”
Instead of taking the opportunity to respond, however, Baglow assumed another Internet identify and raised the possibility of a lawsuit.
Annis suggested Baglow showed bad form by “walking off the blogging stage” instead of answering the insult, which he said was consistent with the contemptuous tone of other exchanges in the debate.
The ruling has received considerable attention in the ever-boiling blogosphere.
Baglow has already posted about it on his Dawg’s Blawg: “Needless to say, the mudfish on the far right are having a frenzied wankfest over this decision,” he wrote, “but I can hardly blame them for that.”
On Free Dominion, Mark Fournier wrote: “He (Baglow) tried to get the court to financially ruin our lives because he doesn’t like our website. That he lost is justice.”
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"If it takes force to impose your ideas on your fellow man, there is something wrong with your ideas. If you are willing to use force to impose your ideas on your fellow man, there is something wrong with you." - Mark Fournier