The Medium Is Not the Message: Reconciling Reputation and Free Expression in Cases of Internet Defamation

By Danay, Robert | McGill Law Journal, December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Medium Is Not the Message: Reconciling Reputation and Free Expression in Cases of Internet Defamation


Danay, Robert, McGill Law Journal


In this paper the author critiques the approach to defamation over the Internet taken to date by the Canadian common law courts. In the emerging jurisprudence, the courts have relied upon untenably bread generalizations about Internet technology, repeatedly equating it with traditional broadcast media and expressing grave concerns about the corresponding threat to reputation posed by online defamation. This has led the courts to hold that when defamatory words are transmitted using the Internet, this will vitiate the availability of any qualified privilege that would otherwise have immunized the defendant from liability under traditional defamation principles, and substantially increase any resulting award of damages. The author argues that this approach results in a failure te strike the appropriate balance between free expression and the protection of reputation. The jurisprudence can also be seen as a product of a longstanding and unfortunate analytical tendency in defamation law--primarily apparent through the libel/slander distinction--whereby common law courts attach extremely divergent legal consequences to impugned statements based on indefensibly broad generalizations about the degree of danger to persona] reputation posed by the medium in which the statement was communicated. Drawing inspiration from a comparison to defamation under the civil law of Quebec, the author proposes a new approach that eschews reliance upon unhelpful analogies and generalizations about particular media including the Internet, and involves the examination of impugned statements on a case-by-case basis, paying careful attention to the context in which these were actually made.

Dans cet essai, l'auteur critique l'approche adoptee par les tribunaux de common law canadiens sur la question de la diffamation sur Internet. Dans la jurisprudence emergeante, les tribunaux se sont bases sur des generalisations indefendables quant a ta technologie de l'Internet. Ils l'assimilent a de nombreuses reprises aux medias electroniques traditionnels et expriment de graves preoccupations quant a la menace correspondante que pose la diffamation en ligue pour la reputation. Cette approche a mene les tribunaux a statuer que lorsque des mots diffamatoires sont transmis sur Internet, les privileges qualifies qui auraient autrement immunise le defendeur contre toute responsabilite, suivant les principes de la diffamation traditionnelle, sont vicies. Le montant des dommages-interets accordes augmente aussi de facon substantielle.

L'auteur soutient que cette approche ne permet pas d'etablir l'equilibre approprie entre la libre expression et la protection de la reputation. La jurisprudence peut aussi etre vue comme le produit d'une facheuse tendance analytique de longue date en matiere de diffamation, tendance qui ressort surtout dans la distinction entre diffamation orale et ecrite. Suivant cette tendance, les tribunaux de common law attachent des consequenoes juridiques extremement divergentes a des declarations en litige, selon qu'elles soient orales ou ecrites. Ces consequences sont basees sur des generalisations larges et indefendables quant au degre de menace peur la reputation personnelle que pose le medium par lequel la declaration a ete communiquee. En s'inspirant d'une comparaison avec la diffamation en droit civil quebecois, l'auteur propose une nouvelle approche qui evite les analogies et les generalisations peu utiles au sujet d'un media particulier, dont Internet. L'approche prepesee implique un examen au cas par cas des declarations contestees, pretant une attention particuliere au contexte dans lequel elles ont ete enoncees.

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Introduction

I.   The Canadian Common Law Approach to Cyber-Libel
     A. Defamation over the Internet and the Qualified Privilege
        Defence
     B. Defamation over the Internet and the Calculation of
        Damages

II.  Why This Matters: Constitutional and Normative Implications

III. … 

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The Medium Is Not the Message: Reconciling Reputation and Free Expression in Cases of Internet Defamation
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