The name of the game is don’t defame

Pam Frampton
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“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

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: CBC, The Whitehorse Star

Geographic location: Winnipeg, Whitehorse, U.S. New York

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    March 08, 2011 - 17:52

    It has indeed been a good discussion.

  • Colin Burke
    March 08, 2011 - 15:13

    Mr. Morrison and I may have different notions of agape. C.S. Lewis puts it at the very highest point of love, the height of generosity, not the minimal requirement. I'm told, for instance, that when Christ after his resurrection asked Peter, "Do you love me?" he used the word agape, according to the Greek Scripture, and when Peter replied that he did indeed love Christ, he used the word philia, which denotes the love of friends. Peter didn't dare claim himself equal to having agape. That was my understanding of the word and why I responded as I did. Mr. Morrison seems almost to use it as meaning justice; I don't know the Greek for justice. It's been a good discussion. Thanks.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 08, 2011 - 14:00

    I was taught that agape, at least in general terms, refers to the universal love that human beings need to feel toward one another. The practice of agape is not solely the property of the Christian Church, or any other group within our world. Consequently, if anyone is practicing agape, it influences how they live all aspects of their lives. Both platonic and sexual relationships are lived out always with knowledge that we need to be mindful not to jeopardize physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being of another human being. Otherwise we could find ourselves exploiting another in order to satisfy our own needs at another’s expense. Furthermore, simply because a couple have been living in a relationship, be they married or living common-law, this doesn’t prevent sexual exploitation from happening. The numbers of battered spouses, usually women, are there to verify this fact. Whereas, two consenting adults who meet in a casual setting such as a bar and decide to engage in casual sex for mutual gratification, are practicing agape so long as they engage in sexual activity mindful of each others need for sexual gratification. This idea might not sit well with the Christian Church, but I am sure it happens. Sadly, when agape is not practiced people end up being exploited, regardless of the context involved. Whether we are talking about two people involved a casual encounter, or two people who are “in relationship,” the absence of agape in either situation can lead to abusive and even criminal behaviour. You made a good point in a previous post ,Colin, when you rightfully pointed out that women don’t have the right to exploit men in the context of sexual activity, simply because women have traditionally been, and continue to be, exploited sexually by men, The practicing of Agape, as I understand agape, would go a long way to achieving that balance that you refer to in that particular post.

  • Colin Burke
    March 08, 2011 - 12:14

    So now Mr. Morrison is talking about agape. I was taught that agape, when connected with sex, is the fruit of sincere devotion practiced during long years of (preferably Christian) marriage, and perhaps only imperfectly achievable thereby. But I had the impression that what we were discussing publicly was a casual encounter between strangers, or at best acquaintances, which ended in rape. Are we to assume that every time a man and woman chat together in a bar, both should presume the effective influence of instant agape is working overtime?

  • Herb Morrison
    March 07, 2011 - 19:24

    Mr. Burke appears to view sexual interaction, at least sexual interaction beteen men and women, as being a contest, little more than a struggle for superiority. A battle of the sexs. Sexual interaction between men and women should be a time to both give and recieve mutual pleasure, and not a time to satisify one's own needs with little or no concern for the needs of the other person involved..However, in order for this type of sexual interaction to take place both partners must be aware of the fact that sexual activity is nothing more than an act of exploition , if the sexual activity impacts negatively on either the emotional or spiritual well-being of their partner. Agape is not to be confused witl chilvary.

  • Colin Burke
    March 07, 2011 - 16:41

    I apologize for my earlier snide response to Herb Morrison's chivalrous view of sexual interaction. If there is no objective order which sex ought to serve and if C.S. Lewis was right when he said people ought to be unselfish simply because they ought to be unselfish, then Mr. Morrison's ideal of unselfish male sexual service to womankind is obviously the ideal to which all men ought to aspire. (And no, I'm not being ironic, sarcastic or satirical, though my wording, I fear, might hint at that.) Women's being encouraged to seek their own selfish enjoyment and men's being required to be almost morbidly generous in supplying that seems, at least just now, to be the kind of role-reversal suggested by the motto "Turn-about is fair play" -- however much that reversal should be adjusted for the right balance to be achieved.

  • Colin Burke
    March 07, 2011 - 10:30

    Pam, I quite agree that a sexual assault which left the victim traumatized five years later merits a harsher sentence than two years conditional, if the judge believed she was traumatized rather than merely vindictive. Full coverage of the trial, including cross-examination of the victim, rather than of a sentencing which was sure to prove controversial, would better suggest what the judge thought of the victim's credibility on that score. Mr. Morrison's comment could be taken to suggest that men should always be abjectly grateful for being allowed only to go as far as female fickleness may fancy; others may know more about that kind of desperation than I do. Also, I'd like to know why the case in question took five years to be resolved -- was the victim too traumatized to complain promptly? Had someone found her in that condition?

  • Duffy
    March 06, 2011 - 18:43

    I would suggest that most of all what Ms. Pam said is 90% correct but it is written, in my opinion, with such a Liberal Let Them All Go because Daddy made them take the trash out or their formula was too thick slant. By the time that the Police make an arrest, the prosecutor determines a case one can assume there is more than smoke & mirrors. Innocent until proven guilty - YES! BUT when a drunk driver is arrested 20 times, has killed someone in the past, drives without a license and insurance - one may assume the Public is safer with him or her in jail for LIFE!

  • Herb Morrison
    March 06, 2011 - 18:10

    Where I come from no means no. Regardless of how far the woman was willing to go in terms of sexual activity, if she wants to stop short of engaging in sexual intercourse, as was obviously the case in the Manitoba trial, the man should have respected her wishes. Clearly the man in this case had little or no respect for the victim, as a person, or else he would have respected her wishes. The judge had no choice but to find the man guilty of sexual assault because any sexual activity, even between adults must, by law, be consensual. Is Mr. Burke implying that that when a woman chooses her wardrobe, she needs to take into account that there are adult males in this worlds who havn’t learned how to “keep it in their pants? Both the Idea that men are not responsible for their actions if they are in a state of sexual arousal, and the idea that the manner in which a woman dresses, justify sexual assault, are ridiculous. Then again, we do live in a province where women are sometimes referred to as “nice pieces of gear.” I repeat, regardless of how a woman dresses, or how far she is willing to go as far as sexual activity is concerned, no still means no when she has gone as far as she is comfortable going.

  • Colin Burke
    March 06, 2011 - 14:11

    Ms. Frampton seems to have taken too much to heart a female law professor's scolding the Winnipeg judge for his opinon. (The story of the scolding is the method by which the matter came to my attention and, I would assume, to Ms. Frampton's; the paper I read didn't carry the full story of that trial. The judge, a male, is in a better position to say whether the way women dress is likely to attract male sexual interest than is a female law professor who wants women to do as they please regardless of consequences in reality. I can well understand that women may be unaware of what attracts male sexual interest; if that is so, then men who care about them, like the judge who was scolded (in absentia, the best way), ought to see that they are better informed. I inferred , from the story available, that the way the woman was dressed, in that case, was only part of the "inviting circumstances" on which the judge based, not his ruling, but his sentence. He had, after all, found the accused guilty.

    • Pam Frampton
      March 06, 2011 - 15:31

      Colin, your assumption is incorrect. The matter came to my attention when I read coverage of the judge's decision, and not just reaction to it. He did find the accused guilty, but surely a sexual assault which has left the victim still traumatized, five years later, deserved a harsher punishment than a conditional sentence?

  • Donny Dooley Dildo NL
    March 06, 2011 - 11:52

    Let me see if I got this straight. The guy sending me an email asking me to change my banking pin and password every second day can't be traced or the guy looking for my visa number and password in a weekly email can never be found but if I call Donny Dooley from Dild0 a surly, loutish, gronkish, gruff, churl, dork, goon, dolt, oaf, slob, buffoon or an ignoramus I can expect a knock on my door? What's up with that?

  • Herb Morrison
    March 05, 2011 - 13:59

    Recently, The Telegram reported that Mr. Leo Crockwell has been denied bail by the courts. In my opinion, Mr. Crockwell can thank his God, or his lucky stars that he is alive, albeit behind bars. It has been reported that Mr. Crockwell is dealing with mental health issues. In recent years, at least two persons with mental health issues; one in Catalina and one on the west coast of Newfoundland have died when they became involved in standoffs with police. In both instances, police officers were deemed to have acted appropriately, when they used deadly force bringing the standoffs to an end. . Despite the fact that Mr. Crockwell is alleged to have fired at police using a rifle or shotgun during the standoff in Bay Bulls, the police chose not to return fire. Consequently Mr. Crockwell is in a jail cell and not a grave. It appears that police officers have learned from past experiences that, despite the fact that they might be justified in using deadly force, after all it is alleged that Mr. Crockwell fired at the officers; the use of deadly force is not always necessary to bring a standoff to a conclusion. When the person who is holding the police at bay has a history of mental health issues, police officers have obviously been trained to use alternative methods to bring a standoff to a conclusion, as was the cast in the Bay Bulls standoff. Mr. Crockwell is a very fortunate individual. Despite the fact that he is alleged to have assaulted a family member, which resulted in the police being called in, and despite the fact that Mr. Crockwell is alleged to have shot at police during the standoff, Mr. Crockwell is still alive. I was surprised by the fact that two readers responded to the Telegram article online, by stating that an injustice was being committed against Mr. Crockwell by the legal system because Mr. Crockwell was denied bail, whereas Ray Newman, who is alleged to have murdered his estranged wife, is once again free on bail. As of right now, the allegations against Mr. Newman have not been substantiated by evidence presented in a court of law. He has not had the benefit of a fair trial. So why should he be behind bars.

  • russell wangersky
    March 05, 2011 - 10:50

    Good point.