In a far-reaching ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada gave its blessing to a new defense against libel that applies to journalists responsibly reporting on stories deemed to be of public interest. The decision is being hailed by free speech advocates as a milestone victory for press freedom in Canada, a country with strict libel laws as compared to countries such as the United States.
“It seems like a win for free speech. I hope following the Supreme Court decision, (Parliament) will also follow suit and change the law,” said Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York-based critic of libel tourism and author of the book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How To Stop It. The new protection, termed “responsible communication” by the court, protects print journalists, broadcasters, writers and bloggers who do their best to verify the facts in their reporting, even if some of the information later proves to be untrue or unverifiable. As long as the journalist had taken the appropriate steps, defined in the ruling, to ensure their reporting was as fair as possible, they will no longer be open to libel lawsuits, the court ruled.
In 2005, Ehrenfeld was sued by Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, who she alleged in Funding Evil had funded al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations using his charities as a cover. Mahfouz sued the author and terrorism expert in a London, England courtroom, even though her book had not been published or marketed in the U.K., because of the country’s outdated and chilling libel laws that are some of the most stringent and plaintiff-friendly in the world.
Ehrenfeld said that her campaign against Britain’s libel system – she refused, as an American citizen, to recognize the British court’s ruling against her – convinced Britain to finally consider updating its libel law. Britain has experienced an alarming increase in incidences of “libel tourism” in recent years. People are finally realizing that, “especially with libel tourism, British libel laws have a chilling effect on free speech and they should be changed,” she said.
She noted that Canada, as a Commonwealth country, has very similar libel laws. “They are totally encouraging suppression of free speech,” she said. The author welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, but said that it is only the beginning. “Hopefully not only Canada, but all Commonwealth countries and the rest of the world will follow,” she said.