I’m very keen on this:
I’m very keen on this:
For the background on this case, please see here.
For the full ruling, see here.
Prior to the closing arguments, I begged John Baglow to, please, stop this lawsuit, even at such a late date. I promised I’d help him fundraise to cover his costs if he, even at this point, called the whole thing off.
Because I firmly believed that any ruling on this case would necessarily be a loss for freedom of speech and a disaster for all of us who socialize on the interwebitudes!
And I was right!
Yes, Connie and Mark Fournier, as well as Peter O’Donnel, have won because even though Madam Justice Polowin found the comments to be defamatory, she also found them to be fair comment and dismissed the case.
So, yes, the Fourniers and POD have won.
But it is a bittersweet victory for them and a decided loss for freedom of speech in the internet.
Let me explain why…
First, let’s name the elephant in the room: the process is the punishment.
Baglow has dragged the defendants through the court system for years and cost them tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in court costs and lost time/productivity. Yet, in her wisdom, Madam Justice Polowin did not order Baglow to pay the Fournier’s court costs.
Not having any training in legal matters, I find this mindblowing.
If the words were deemed to be ‘fair comment’, as Madam Justice Polowin had ruled, why should the Fourniers and POD have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, travel and accommodations in order to defend themselves against what she has ruled is a baseless accusation?
And why should they have to pay half the costs of a court expert in internet communication: an ‘expert’ who is so very up on internet communication and customs that he testified that he’s never ever heard of Godwin’s Law?!?!?
An internet communication expert who’s never heard of Godwin’s Law?
Come on, this is a joke!!!
Even my mother-in-law, who needs help logging on to Facebook, has enough internet savvy to know Godwin’s Law, aka reducto ad Hitlerum…
But, that is besides the point: the bitter lump of coal (actually, coal is not that bitter, but you know what I mean…) here is that while the defendants may have been found innocent, but they still get punished by not having their costs covered and having to pay for an ‘expert’ which would not have been necessary had the judge had even high-school level knowledge of the online world around her.
Second, I most vociferously disagree with some of her rulings on a the various issues raised in the case, because they will, in a very real sense, cause a serious chill in online communications. It will probably take me multiple readings to fully analyse the significant damage this ruling poses to freedom of speech, but, one of her rulings practically jumps out at me.
This is the ruling that providers of an online discussion space are considered to be the publishers of what other people post to these fora, whether this is moderated or not.
This spells a disaster for every blogger that permits comments and makes the running of un-pre-moderated discussion fora a very serious liability danger: most will probably be limited to permitting only politically correct speech and no discussion of controversial topics whatsoever.
In reality, Madame Justice Polowin ruling means that, for example, WordPress or Blogger, by providing a platform for publication with the aim for people to come there and exchange ideas, that this makes WordPress or Twitter etc. the publishers of that communication and just as liable for the words published on their platform by third parties as if they themselves had written it.
Just think about the impact this ruling will have…
Sorry, I’ve got to leave this here for now….you see, dear reader, I suddenly have this terrible pounding headache….
Plus a bit of commentary:
This is reporting on a real-life (unfortunately) court case, the whole narrative of which is indexed in Dr. Baglow vs Free Speech – and listed at the top bar of this blog.
As I left off, Barbara Kulaszka, the lawyer representing the defendant Mark Fournier, had finished her closing arguments. It was now Roger Smith’s (known online as Peter O’Donnel) turn to make his closing arguments.
It is difficult to describe Roger Smith in a few words because he is quite a complex person. Even my short exposure to him made that clear. So, what I write, can only be a very tiny glimpse of this unique (in a very good way) and highly intelligent man.
Roger Smith is of a similar age as the plaintiff, Dr. Baglow, and both have silver hair – but that is where the physical resemblance ends.
Where the extroverted Dr. Baglow is expansive, speaks loudly with expressive body language (his doctorate is, after all, in poetry – so some theatricity ought to be expected) while the introverted Roger Smith is shy and humble in his demeanor, speaking softly and gently.
So, one has to listen carefully when Mr. Smith speaks – not just because he is soft-spoken, but also because he makes many little jokes under his breath! And his jokes are well worth straining one’s ears for.
Even Madame Justice Polowin seems to enjoy his jokes – her eyes sparkle and she has even, a couple times, rewarded Mr. Smith’s humour with the kind of smile usually reserved only for Mr. Frankel. (At least – in this courtroom…..though Connie has, at times, earned it as well.)
I will be paraphrasing a lot, but, to the best of my understanding, Roger Smith’s defense revolved around the following points:
Firstly, he asserted that the impugned words were actually not defamatory – and urged the judge to find that way. After all, the fact that the late Jack Layton was referred to as ‘Taliban Jack’ not only did not cause him any defamation, it seemed to actually help his electoral success!
Madam Justice was nodding her head in assent.
Secondly, he (RS) did not mention the plaintiff by name – Roger Smith’s online pseudonym called Dr. Bglow’s online pseudonym a name. But, pseudonyms are not the same as real-life names and, as even the court’s own expert had testified, people often build a very different, unique persona for their online pseudonym – one which intentionally differs in tone and perhaps even opinions from their real-life identity (for various legitimate reasons). Thus the two ought not be conflated: Roger Smith did not call Dr. Baglow anything – Peter O’Donnel called Dr. Dawg a name, that’s all…
In addition, the context of the debate – ongoing, skipping around all through them interwebitudes from blog to blog to discussion boards and back again, over a number of days – had reduced the defamatory potential of the impugned words to exactly zero.
Since that debate did bounce around from one online place to another, it is not the easiest thing to follow the actual real-time sequence in which the various comments were made because some were time/date stamped in one time-zone, some in another. In order to make it easier for Madam Justice to follow the timeline, RS had taken the pains to sequentialize them in Appendix A. Madam Justice was much less interested in this at that point in time than Mr. Smith was, but, in my never-humble-opinion, she will find it a useful tool as she reviews the evidence.
Which she will – she made that abundantly clear!
For the duration of the trial – and even in the communication that was not publicly visible, like the various emails that form the voluminous body of the exhibits in this trial and tribulation, the plaintiff and his lawyer, Mr. Burnet (who had, actually, commented as a ‘guest’ on the Warman trial coverage on this very blog in the past), had referred to Roger Smith as an old crank, a wingnut.
This, I believe, was the very word that Madam Justice Polowin used extensively when questioning the court expert on online media and communications – and he assured her that once a person has acquired an online reputation as a ‘wingnut’, nothing that person says will be taken seriously by anyone else and his commentary will either be skipped right over or simply seen as humorous interlude…
But, I digress…
Throughout this whole ordeal, Peter O’Donnel had been referred to as a crank, a nut, a wingnut…and his writings were referred to as ‘incoherent rambling’ and ‘woolly essay’. In other words, ridiculed and dismissed. There was even one email read into evidence from Dr. Baglow to someone (Jay Currie, I suspect, but am not certain) where Dr. Baglow dismisses Peter O’Donnel as an inconsequential crank, saying he’s probably not even going to bother suing him because coming from him, the impugned words ‘mean nothing’: it was the Fourniers he was going after for having provided a forum for this speech to be uttered.
So, RS continued, he was surprised that in his closing arguments, Mr. Burnet had promoted Roger Smith to an intelligent man, a deep thinker … and his writing was promoted to ‘well-composed prose’!
It was at this point that Roger Smith earned one of Madam Justice’s impish smiles and her cheeks even flushed a bright pink, as I suspect she was working hard to stifle a fit of giggles…apparently, this ‘promotion’ had not gone unnoticed by her!
Working on his momentum, RS continued building his defense, recalling the plaintiff’s words (which Dr. Baglow regretted and apologized to ‘our agricultural workers’ for having used) ‘yokels with pitchforks’ and re-classified Omar Khadr and his ilk of terrorists (the subjects that evoked the impugned description of Dr. Dawg from Peter O’Donnel) as ‘super-yokels with rifles’.
And, a substantial number of Canadians (59%, if I understand it correctly) do hold the belief that lending moral support to Omar Khadr is indeed ‘giving moral support to the enemy’…it would, in very real terms, enhance their geopolitical struggle on the other side of the world if their members were receiving moral support from some people over here, undermining our political will to continue in the armed struggle.
RS asserted that leftists often make common cause with terrorists in their regional struggle. (Indeed, I would have taken this further, pointing out that many leftists believe that their utopian end justifies any means and that supporting (directly or indirectly) the enemies of our Western society, based on civil liberties, will bring our civilization down faster, which will help them build their tyrannical dystopia that much faster.)
The judge interrupted RS at this point, saying he need not belabour this: she understands that he means that ‘support’ is more than just money or direct fighting…
During this bit, Dr. Baglow was leaning back from the table, his long legs elegantly crossed in front him in a classical ‘power pose’ – but he was very fastidiously studying his manicure.
Mr. Burnet was using the index finger of his left hand to tap his ear, listening carefully to every word and undoubtedly preparing for his rebuttal at the end of the day.
Indeed, RS continued: support can be passive, like supporting ‘carbon taxes’…I suppose the climatologist in him cannot be suppressed! (By the way, according to the brief discussions we had during breaks, our scientific conclusion on ‘Global Warning’ are pretty similar.)
His essay (within which the impugned words were contained) covered a number of topics – from Steven Harper to long-form census (something that was VERY HOTLY debated in my own family: one of those instances where my brilliant economist father-in-law, who had been a special economic adviser to 4 different Liberal Prime Ministers – two as PM’s, two while Ministers of the Crown who later went on to seize ‘the brass ring’, well, he and I battled long and loud over the souls of the next generation of our family over this issue! I think it was the next generation of our family that won: they were forced to consider the issue from all possible angles and reach a conclusion of their own (not that they’d tell us what that is)!!! Which, really, is the point… Though my hubby and my mother-in-law tried throwing things at us (figuratively!) to change the topic….it seems not everyone appreciates a heated, no-holds-barred political discussion at the dinner table! Which reminds me – I must get something awesome prepared for the next family holiday….) Re-focusing!
The essay covered things as diverse as the ‘beer and popcorn’ fiasco and lamented the hypocrisy of calling conservatives ‘yokels with pitchforks’. RS admitted freely that it was a poorly written essay, and that it rambled a lot and would not have won any essay contests! Indeed, it was so poorly written that the thread was virtually unread…until, that is, this whole thing erupted! Then Streisand effect took over….once Dr. Dawg and MsMew sank their teeth into it (my words, not his).
OK – I must admit to you, my dear reader, that I have mangled both the wording and the timing of the various arguments. I am working both from memory and my notes – and when I see something touched on, I keep writing – spilling the whole scoop to you, even when it ought to have just been foreshadowing…then, I read on and find the full argument I described 300 words ago only happened now. Please, forgive me my sloppy reporting – I just wish someone better at it than I would have been in the courtroom to present another accounting of the events.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that throughout the trial, different people did drop in for a bit here and there. Today, for example, Mr. Frankel’s sister-in-law, who is a law student, dropped by the courtroom to watch the closing arguments (and got to have lunch with Mr. Frankel to boot!).
He-who-must-not-be-named (on pain of legal action) also dropped in every now and then, though not today.
And Canadian Cynic, known in the blogosphere for his knowledge of Linux (good) and for hurling misogynistic slurs at conservative women (sad, so very sad) on the internet (at least, that is what a quick Google search suggested), also popped in a few times: I even saw him chatting with Dr. Baglow in the hallway, but no matter how hard I tried to establish eye contact, I failed.
On this last day of this case, there was also a youngish man with a mop of blond hair, a gray tweed jacket, light open-necked shirt with a subtle stripe and blue jeans. I approached him during the lunch break and sked if he were a reporter.
“Sort of” he smiled as he slid over a copy of Frank magazine. “I’m with them!” I saw him later chatting with Canadian Cynic. Funny thing is – Frank magazine’s name did actually pop up in the trial earlier, as an example of how different print media have differing ‘standards’ for ‘discourse’…as in, one would not expect as colourful a language in, say, CTV or CBC or ‘Globe and Mail’ as one would from ‘Frank magazine’… And demonstrating that different segments, even wihin the same ‘print media’ would have different levels of discourse and expectations of the way language is used is at the very heart of this court case: the plaintiff asserts that once published, even to one person, the ‘language’ must be ‘standardized’ and it really is of no relevance whether this is a scientific treatise or a tabloid or a shock-jock-thingie (WIC radio case)….while the defense is claiming that in different platforms, the participants are performing for different audiences and that the expectations and understandings of the particular audience of their message board is of paramount importance because it is the perceptions of that segment of the citizenry who will be exposed to the impugned words, so, how they perceive will define their defamatory potential.
OK, I have been generalizing again – but I think that this is important because conveying the ‘flavour’ of the differing sides is so core to this very case….
Thank you, my dear reader, for having indulged me thus far.
I have attempted to capture both the substance of Mr. Smith’s defense as well as the atmosphere in the courtroom. But, let me return to it, in my most imperfect manner.
Roger Smith explained to the judge that he truly and honestly held the belief that what Dr. Dawg had posted in his comments constituted giving aid and comfort to the terrorists and enemies of Canadian Armed forces in Afghanistan – and that while he held these beliefs about the words posted by Dr. Dawg, he did not harbour any personal malice against Dr. Baglow himself … but that the evidence bore out that, sadly, this was not true in reverse.
RS pointed out that while Dr. Baglow had reached out to Connie and Mark Fournier, asking them to settle out of court, he had not presented any such opportunity to Mr. Smith himself. Not once had Dr. Baglow extended Roger Smith the courtesy of even contacting him…
Any reading of the discussion, as it evolved over the 7 or so days, will reveal deeply vitriolic comments made by Dr. Baglow – much more so than by RS.
‘Begly’ (the name that the defendant, at this point, thought was Dr. Dawg’s meat-space name – not even being aware of the proper name of the pesky paintiff who thinks himself so important that ‘everyone’ knows him, yet he should not have to meet the ‘higher bar’ for defamation set for ‘public figures’ – he’s the only ‘public figure’ who should have the ‘private person’ protections against legitimate political criticism), Zyklon B, pot-calling-the-kettle-black…you get the picture.
At this point, Mr. Smith became unsure if pointing out just how much of a chill a ‘guilty’ verdict would cast over the interwebitudes and just how cluttered the courts would become with defamation cases if the bar were to be set this low… Being a principled person, he wanted it judged on the merits of this case – which he honestly thinks are insufficient for the finding of defamation. But, this is where he was, in my never-humble-opinion, torn: he wanted the court to be aware of the potential real-life implications of setting the bar this low, without appearing to ‘fear-monger’ or some such thing.
Madam Justice Polowin found this rather endearing: she assured Mr. Smith that the so called ‘floodgates argument’ is not without merit and is, at times, successfully employed by real-life lawyers at court so he, as a self-represented citizen, ought not be ashamed of raising it. And she smiled…
I know my words do not do justice to this moment at court but I’d like you, my dear reader, to know that this was a ‘Moment’ with a capital ‘M’…if you excuse the expression.
At this point, Roger Smith concluded his defense by saying that he cannot afford a fancy lawyer and that it would probably have been wise not to fight this battle, but, that he was not fighting it just on his own behalf but also on the behalf of the many Canadians who cherish their freedom of speech and exercise it, including on the internet, and that he felt that it was his moral obligation to our society to fight this battle!
In her right, Madam Justice Polowin seemed to understand this – and appreciate the kind of sacrifice it took Roger Smith to go on and fight for all of us!!!
She beamed a wonderful smile at him, and assured him that, for a self-rep, he had done an admirable job, that he was respectful of the court rules and, along with Connie, they had been some of the most professional self-reps she had ever had the pleasure to preside over.