Grant v. Torstar and the defence of responsible communication: implications for bloggers and users of other online media

January 25, 2010

In the recent decision of Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (“Grant”) and its companion case, Quan v. Cusson, 2009 SCC 62 (“Quan”), the Supreme Court of Canada sought to strike a more appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation by creating the new defence of “responsible communication on matters of public interest” (the “Defence”). The Defence allows defendants in libel cases where statements of fact are at issue to evade liability if they can show that they acted responsibly in reporting on a matter of public interest, even if the statements of fact are untrue. Prior to the decision, defendants could not avoid liability in these cases unless they showed that the statement was substantially true (the defence of justification), or that the statement was made in a protected context (the defence of privilege).

Importantly, the Defence applies not only to journalists and print-based publishers – the types of defendants in Grant and Quan – but also to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media:

[T]he traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists. These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets. I agree … that the new defence is “available to anyone who publishes material of public interest in any medium”. [Grant, at para. 96]

[Emphasis added]

Although the extension of the Defence to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media is an important recognition of the growing relevance and legitimacy of these groups, the Defence is – at least currently – unlikely to protect most members of these groups. To gain the protection of the Defence, the defendant must establish two elements: (1) that the publication is on a matter of public interest; and (2) that the publication was responsible, in that the defendant was diligent in trying to verify the allegation. The trial judge will determine the first element. If the judge concludes that the first element is met, the jury will determine the second element, having regard to several factors:

  • the seriousness of the allegation;
  • the public importance of the matter;
  • the urgency of the matter;
  • the status and reliability of the source;
  • whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported;
  • whether the inclusion of the defamatory statement was justifiable;
  • whether the defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it was made rather than its truth; and
  • any other relevant circumstances

In assessing whether the defendant was diligent, the jury will be guided by “established journalistic standards”:

[M]any actions now concern blog postings and other online media which are potentially both more ephemeral and more ubiquitous than traditional print media. While established journalistic standards provide a useful guide by which to evaluate the conduct of journalists and non-journalists alike, the applicable standards will necessarily evolve to keep pace with the norms of new communications media. [Grant, at para. 97]

[Emphasis added]

This indicates that the same journalistic standard must be applied to every defendant irrespective of whether or not they are journalists. As a result, the Defence will likely not apply to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media unless they perform the due diligence expected of a journalist in the circumstances.

The problem for many members of these groups is that they are generally not guided by established journalistic norms. Although they may approach online publishing in good faith and with a level of diligence reasonably expected of non-journalists, this level of diligence is unlikely to meet the required journalistic standard. For example, although journalists will generally make a point of seeking the plaintiff’s side of the story and speaking directly to witnesses and experts, non-journalist bloggers – who are generally unpaid for their efforts – will rarely have the time, resources, training, or willingness to do so. As one American commentator argues,

blogging and journalism clearly differ. The former ‘implies that a disinterested third party is reporting facts fairly’ (Andrews, 2003: 64). Blogs are ‘unedited, unabashedly opinionated, sporadic and personal’ (Palser, 2002) – in many ways, the antithesis of traditional US journalism. Some say that is the best thing about them. ‘Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people,’ but bloggers “are oblivious to such traditions” (Welsh, 2003). [Jane B. Singer, “The political j-blogger: ‘normalizing’ a new media form to fit old norms” (2005) 6(2) Journalism 173 at 176]

[Emphasis added]

Even if a non-journalist blogger or user of other online media does engage in the level of diligence required to meet the journalistic standard, they may unknowingly fail to do so in a way that produces a strong record of evidence from which a court can conclude that they did act diligently. As a result, many of these defendants may simply not have access to the protection of the Defence.

Nonetheless, Grant does not foreclose the possibility that courts will apply a different diligence standard to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media as the “norms of new communications media” evolve. Although the court isn’t clear on this point, these groups might be able to gain the protection of the Defence in future cases even if they haven’t performed their diligence in the same way that a traditional journalist would have:

While established journalistic standards provide a useful guide by which to evaluate the conduct of journalists and non-journalists alike, the applicable standards will necessarily evolve to keep pace with the norms of new communications media. [Grant, at para. 97]

[Emphasis added]

Even if the standard applicable to these groups does not shift to allow them to gain the protection of the Defence, juries – who have been tasked with the responsibility for assessing whether the defendant was diligent – may be sympathetic to these groups and apply the journalistic standard less rigidly.

In summary, although the Defence extends to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media, many members of these groups are unlikely to be protected by the Defence because it requires that they performed the due diligence expected of a journalist. Nonetheless, the law does not necessarily foreclose the possibility that courts will apply a different diligence standard to these groups in future cases, or that juries will less rigidly apply the existing journalistic standard.

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Also posted on Law is Cool and quoted in the Canadian Association of Journalists Media Magazine at p. 27.

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