“When public men indulge themselves in abuse, when they deny others a fair trial, when they resort to innuendo and insinuation, to libel, scandal, and suspicion, then our democratic society is outraged, and democracy is baffled.”
— J. William Fulbright (1905-1995), American statesman
There’s a course offered in high school in this province that should be mandatory for adults, too.
Canadian Law 2104, the course description tells us, was designed so that “the study of law, an essential component of citizenship education, may be made more accessible to students.”
The crux of that sentence is “essential component of citizenship,” because the justice system affects us all, whether or not we ever find ourselves on the wrong side of it.
That may sound obvious, but you wouldn’t think so if you read some of the comments posted to media websites.
At The Telegram, those comments are moderated, and so the libelous ones don’t see the light of day, but if many commenters had their way, media websites would be blown wide open in a defamatory free-for-all.
Some of the people whose comments are rejected are quick to post subsequent messages crying censorship, but there’s a difference between freedom of speech and libel.
Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want about someone without consequence. People have rights and reputations and you can’t blithely steamroll your way over them.
Now, some of the misconceptions out there can be blamed on the occasionally idiotic, anachronistic judgments being handed down in Canadian courtrooms, like the recent scurrilous decision of a Winnipeg judge who apparently thinks any woman wearing a tank top is a walking, talking invitation to be raped.
But there’s plenty about justice that’s common sense, and you don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to make the right call.
New Age stonings
And yet the defamatory comments keep pouring in.
Most of them involve people rushing to judgment and wading in on criminal cases, and commenters can be downright nasty, like gladiator-watchers at the first sight of blood.
If we publish a story saying someone has been granted bail, we invariably get comments about them being let off scot-free to assault someone else or run over someone else or rob someone else when they haven’t even been convicted of anything yet.
You can think someone guilty all you like, but you can’t put in writing that someone is guilty and have that comment published without running afoul of the law yourself.
Ditto for submitting comments saying that specific politicians are on the take or that such-and-such a police officer is a lowlife scum who routinely drinks and drives.
Nor can you say a particular accountant you know is robbing his employer blind, or that a particular priest is a pedophile — unless you’re prepared to lay out your proof.
And don’t think anonymity will protect you.
Ghost of comments past
It will be interesting to see the outcome of a court case unfolding in Whitehorse, where a safety inspector is suing the CBC for disparaging comments posted to its website.
The offending words, submitted by someone named “BCHimself,” suggested — among other things — that “overweight former police officers have no business investigating health and safety cases,” The Whitehorse Star reported on Jan. 26.
The comments also attacked the man’s competence and credibility.
As the safety inspector noted in his statement of claim, “Once on the web, there was and is no method to retract the libelous statements. ... Anyone reading those comments on the website can republish the message by reprinting it and sending it again and again.”
This matter is still before the courts, but don’t be surprised if “BCHimself” is unveiled as part of the process.
Remember, when you submit a comment online, you submit an email address and there are ways to track computer users down.
As the U.S.-based Social Media Law Update blog notes, “There is not an unbridled right to speak if laws are being broken.”
The blog points out that even where websites allow anonymous comments, there is precedence for companies being forced to unmask defamers:
“New York state courts have ordered the disclosure of anonymous bloggers when the party seeking the information has demonstrated a good chance of prevailing in an action against the anonymous blogger and, therefore, deserves the name of the blogger so she can be sued in court.”
The moral of the story is, we want you to comment on the things you read in our paper and on our website. Your input is invaluable to us and we enjoy reading your opinions and sharing them with other readers.
But, please, leave the poison pens at home.
The courts have enough to contend with.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.