Friday, February 06, 2015

Journalism, Defamation and Free Speech

This just came across my twitter feed: Climate Scientist Andrew Weaver Wins $50,000 in Defamation Suit Against National Post, Terence Corcoran 

It is one of two important court decisions that came out today (Friday). The one that has attracted all the attention is the right to die decision by the SOC. Fair enough. This is an important decision. I don't actually have a lot to say about it and so it might be wise if I thought about it before saying anything. I do, however, have something to say about the BC SOC in which Green MLA Andrew Weaver was awarded  damages because of untrue and inaccurate comments published by The National Post. Personally, I am glad Weaver won but not because I support the Green Party (which I do) but because I think it is vitally important to maintain accuracy in journalism and a certain level of decorum. The fact that The National Post has been faulted here is almost unfortunate because its politics are more overt than, say, The Globe. There may be those who will argue that this dampens free speech but I don't think so. Let me quickly explain why.

First, the issue is accuracy. In Canada, it has never been legal -- for journalists or anyone else -- to lie publicly about someone. In this regard, the Court is not breaking new ground but affirming old ground. Truth is its own defense; public untruths by responsible parties are not defensible.

Second, journalists and, one assumes, other public commentators (recently Sun commentator Ezra Levant lost a suit, too, if I am not mistaken) (perhaps including me) have a duty to be accurate when commenting on someone in a way that can create material harm to them. Again, there is nothing new. What the court is saying is the fact that one says something publicly is not a defense of inaccuracy.

Third, many of the comments were not arguments but insults. Preventing insults is, of course, not easy and it might be something that we, rightly I think, view with a certain amount of caution. But, I would argue that public commentators should not look to make their case by calling down others. Said differently, those who write for important periodicals or who comment on TV or the radio, etc., should look to make arguments in reason. Polemics, of course, are not arguments in reason and insulting someone instead of addressing their evidence is not a an argument. In fact, it distracts from reasoned dialogue.

Thus, what this ruling does -- I hope -- is to affirm distinctions that are vitally important to free speech. There is a difference between fact and opinion; public commentators should make arguments about facts; insulting and belittling people in ways that create material harm for them remains out of bounds. No serious journalist, in my view, no serious public commentator, is threatened by these criteria. Only those who can't make arguments in reason or marshal facts will find this ruling a threat to their speech.
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