“Informed debate on matters of public interest is essential to democracy, but over-emphasis on protection of reputation in Canadian law and the resulting fear of libel action keep important information from the public.” That’s the nub of the argument to the Supreme Court of Canada by a coalition of media organizations. They’re intervening in an appeal of a defamation verdict.

Here’s the press release from the Canadian Newspaper Association:

Newspaper, Media Groups Ask Canada’s Supreme Court to Accept “Public Interest Responsible Journalism” Defence in Libel Actions

OTTAWA, Feb. 17 /CNW/ – Informed debate on matters of public interest is essential to democracy, but over-emphasis on protection of reputation in Canadian law and the resulting fear of libel action keep important information from the public, a coalition of media groups led by the Canadian Newspaper Association told the Supreme Court of Canada today.

“Society has a broad interest in getting more information. You can’t have public debate in a vacuum,” said Brian Macleod Rogers, counsel for the coalition, one of several interveners in an appeal by the Ottawa Citizen of a defamation verdict in a case involving a former OPP officer.

“The problem with the approach to libel in Canadian law,” Rogers added, “is that the public is lost in the clash (…) between reputation and free speech.”
 
The case centres on a libel action brought by the former OPP officer, who claimed he was defamed in published news stories that alleged he misrepresented himself to New York authorities in the aftermath of 9/11. While judges at the Ontario Court of Appeal found that the defence of “public interest responsible journalism,” established by courts in Britain, should be allowed in Canada, it did not allow the Ottawa Citizen to use it in its appeal.
 
The case shines a light on the restrictiveness of current libel law for, among other reasons, even though the Citizen reported information provided by police officers that was corroborated at trial, a jury found some of those statements to be defamatory and awarded $100,000 in damages.

Here’s the Canadian Press factual: “Media lawyers are telling the country’s top court that Canadian libel law needs to be changed to protect journalists against defamation suits – even when they get some of their facts wrong.”

The Globe and Mail led: “A genuinely probing news media cannot exist alongside an outdated law of defamation that places reputation ahead of the public interest in receiving information, the Supreme Court of Canada was told today.”

Reported CanWest: “When former police officer Danno Cusson took his dog, Ranger, to New York to help in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the visit touched off a legal dispute that reaches the Supreme Court of Canada on Tuesday in an appeal that could expand the right of journalists to free speech.”

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