B.C. Case Will Test Libel Law

Article excerpt

Late last month, Vancouver weekly newspaper the Georgia Straight published a story by journalist Laura Robinson that contained allegations John Furlong, former head of Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee, verbally and physically abused aboriginal students more than 40 years ago while a teacher in Burns Lake, B.C. The fallout from that article has been threatened defamation suits and countersuits. The promised lawsuits reflect the gravity of the allegations against Mr. Furlong. But they also reflect a sea change in Canada's defamation law crafted by the Supreme Court of Canada in late 2009.

After the Georgia Straight article was published, Mr. Furlong responded swiftly. He called a press conference, categorically denied all allegations of student abuse and lambasted the ethics of both Ms. Robinson and the newspaper, and announced that he would sue.

In an astonishing public response, Ms. Robinson challenged Mr. Furlong's attacks on her journalistic integrity. She announced she'll countersue him for defamation, for his accusing her of a "shocking lack of due diligence" and carrying on a personal vendetta against him. She also stated the article is supported by eight sworn affidavits of witnesses to, or victims of, the abuse.

Mr. Furlong riposted with a further public statement denying the alleged abuse and reiterating legal action was pending.

This isn't the way defamation suits normally play out in Canada.

Traditionally, an alleged defamer was best advised to keep his or her mouth shut about the complained-of statements until a court ruled on them. The author of an alleged libel -- defamation that's printed or permanently recorded, as opposed to slander, which is merely orally stated -- who publicly yammers on about it risks inviting further legal action or a higher damages award. The modern trend is for courts to consider an alleged libeler's conduct right up to the court's verdict. Repeating a libel can multiply the damages award, or result in a separate award for punitive or exemplary damages for comments made after the initial libel. …