December 22, 2009 – The Supreme Court of Canada has issued two related rulings that will help protect journalists and non-journalists alike from libel actions when writing on matters of public interest.
The rulings involved libel claims brought by lumber magnate Peter Grant against The Toronto Star and by former OPP constable Danno Cusson against the Ottawa Citizen. The Toronto Star had reported on concerns of local citizens about efforts by Mr Grant to acquire Crown land in order to build a private golf course next to a lake. The Ottawa Citizen had reported on Mr Cusson’s conduct in New York City and in Ottawa immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. At trial, both actions gave rise to large jury awards against the media.
The Supreme Court ordered new trials in both cases, concluding that Canadian libel laws were overly restrictive of freedom of expression. Following the lead of courts in the U.K, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and in the light of the free expression guarantee in the Charter of Rights, the Supreme Court held that it is a defence to a libel action to show that the defendant took steps to act responsibly when communicating on a matter of public interest. Whether a matter is of public interest will be determined by the judge. Whether the defendant acted responsibly in the circumstances will be for the jury to decide, said the SCC.
"These are important victories for freedom of expression", said John Hinds, President of the CNA. "We were pleased to be part of the media effort that pushed for this ruling and we are gratified by the outcome."
A media coalition of 11 non-profit national organizations, including the Canadian Newspaper Association, intervened in each of these cases both at the Supreme Court of Canada and earlier in the Ontario Court of Appeal. The media coalition strongly urged both courts to recognize in Canadian law a defence of responsible journalism in the public interest. The Canadian Newspaper Association wishes to thank in particular media lawyer Brian MacLeod Rogers for his hard work on behalf of the media coalition. See attachment below for his analysis of the decision.
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