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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Should Websites Be Held Legally Responsible?

An interesting defamation case is making its way through the courts in British Columbia.
It involves a respected professor of climate science at the University of Victoria, Andrew Weaver.

Professor Weaver is claiming that his reputation was damaged by the Toronto newspaper, The National Post.

Weaver alleges that a series of stories in the Post, including a column which accused him of joining the “left coast Suzuki-PR-industrial complex” on global warming, were designed to destroy his reputation internationally.

In his claim, he is asking the B.C. court to order the Post to remove the offending articles from its website. More significantly, Weaver wants the court to make the Post identify any and all electronic databases where they are accessible, and to assist Weaver in their removal from any other website.

This includes all reader comments on the Post's website which originated from anonymous contributors which could also be seen as defamatory, according to Weaver. The unidentified commentators are also being sued by Weaver - they're named individually as "Doe, Roe, Poe, and Yoe." Might these four individuals also be sued by Weaver if the Post were forced to identify them?

As in the UK, Canada allows fair comment, provided the comments are based on fact and not malicious. Weaver's statement of claim implies that the casual approach to scientific information displayed in the Post's editorials could become a line of evidence indicating that the paper displayed a malicious disregard for accuracy.

If successful, the Weaver lawsuit would force media organizations in Canada to moderate all comments for defamation and libel. It would have a chilling effect on the concept of free speech as proclaimed under the Canadian Charter of Rights. In this instance, the Post would have had to moderate all comments, and demand that individuals identify themselves, as least to the editor, if not to the reading public.

Journalism, politics and increasingly science are all becoming battlegrounds on this issue. I admire Weaver's willingness to defend his reputation, and to hold a media organization to account.  I also worry that the ability of citizens to express themselves freely (even harshly) in a democracy would be seriously and irrevocably damaged.


  1. Mr. D:

    In terms of the commenters the internet is fast blurring the line between speech and historical fact. I think it's one thing for people to say something nasty and quite another for the internet to repeat that nastiness forever. One is offensive. But after a certain time the internet's repeating of offensive things seems malicious. Not that the words have changed, but in that they never fade away. In my view that's what the Weaver case is really challenging - how the web's memory is challenging our notions of free speech.

  2. In regard to what Mark wrote, what is also curious about the suit is that Terry Corcoran et als columns are in fact based on "facts" which appeared in news articles the Post published. Articles which, if I read the suit correctly, aren't included in the libel action. You would think that all the Post had to do was say to Weaver re facts was: Look, we have you recorded as saying x and x and x. You may not have liked it in retrospect, but listen to yourself saying those things. That leads one to believe that the reporters may not have recorded anything. And that in the digital universe is almost as big a professional crime as slander and libel.

  3. Well, based upon what the Claim says, he is disputing a lot of what is claimed as fact in those articles he has cited.

    I'm debating climbing through the articles to trace what I can about the "facts."

    Libel law is a bit of an obsession with me, especially where it intersects political speech and science.