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Television Ezra Levant sues Twitter user who criticized Rebel Media crowdfunding campaign for Fort Mac

Ezra Levant

Stuart Dryden/QMI Agency

Ezra Levant, the proprietor of upstart news and commentary site Rebel Media, is suing an online antagonist for defamation over a series of tweets that suggested a Rebel-sponsored crowdfunding campaign for Fort McMurray was financially benefiting Mr. Levant.

In a statement of claim filed last week in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, Mr. Levant charges that Adam Stirling defamed him by tweeting that the campaign, which sought to raise $100,000 that Rebel would then donate to the Red Cross, could result in a tax writeoff and other benefits for Mr. Levant.

The campaign, on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, began on May 4 and is scheduled to conclude Friday. As of midday Thursday, it had raised more than $162,000 from 1,094 backers.

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The claim says Mr. Stirling, a freelance broadcaster based in Victoria, "engaged in a systematic effort through his Twitter account to besmirch the reputation of the plaintiff by accusing him of, among other things, operating the fundraising website for personal financial gain and engaging in fraudulent and otherwise improper conduct."

It adds: "The defendant's story was patently false. To the extent any tweets contain [any] expressions of opinion, they are based on false statements of fact and therefore not fair comment.

"Further, key facts were omitted, leaving readers unable to fairly assess the defendant's stated opinions."

Lawyers for Mr. Stirling did not respond to a Globe and Mail request for comment. None of the allegations has been proved in court.

The claim states that Mr. Levant contacted Mr. Stirling between May 7 and May 8 "by e-mail, demanding that the defendant delete the defamatory tweets and post a retraction on his social media webpages, including on his Twitter account. The defendant deleted the defamatory tweets but refused to post a retraction."

The tweets in question are no longer available on Mr. Stirling's Twitter feed, but some can be found through conventional Internet keyword searches and in Web caches.

In the days after Mr. Levant said he requested the retraction, Mr. Stirling suggested a number of times on Twitter that he was not to be taken seriously. "It's also time to periodically remind people that this is a satire account – as always," he tweeted on May 8. He added: "We made space for redcross.ca and lost the 'satire' tag, but it's important it's there. Wouldn't want anyone not getting it."

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A little more than an hour later, he tweeted: "I don't apologize for telling jokes, but I will clarify when people in my mentions don't actually know they are jokes."

On Thursday, Mr. Stirling's Twitter biography read: "I tell jokes, write satire, and do commentary. I sometimes do radio and TV. Served as @fernwoodpd Chief from May 4th until wrongly fired on May 26th. "

Among other complaints about the Rebel Media campaign, Mr. Stirling said donations would not qualify for matching federal and provincial funds because the campaign closes after the government deadline of May 31. The Red Cross has raised more than $110-million in the effort.

Mr. Stirling also questioned Rebel Media offering perks to donors such as a free one-year subscription to the site's "premium content" (valued at $80) for donations of $160, or one-year memberships in something called "The Producers Club" (valued at $250) for donations of $500. As of Thursday afternoon, 111 donors have qualified for one of the two perks.

Mr. Levant's claim asks for $70,000 in damages for defamation, in addition to $25,000 in punitive and exemplary damages, noting that "the plaintiff's reputation has been seriously damaged and he has suffered distress and embarrassment." Mr. Levant's claim says that, if the suit is successful, he "intends to donate all damages recovered to the Red Cross."

The suit by Mr. Levant comes at an unusual time for the pundit, who is an ardent champion of free speech. In November, 2014, he was found to have libelled a law student in a series of articles about a 2008 British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal that he published on a personal blog.

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In that case, the judge rejected a defence put forward by Mr. Levant's legal team that his reputation as an "outspoken provocateur and troublemaker" would preclude most reasonable people from taking his statements literally.

After Mr. Levant was ordered to pay $80,000, he commenced a fundraising campaign to help defray legal costs. In January of this year, he filed an appeal that argued the "judgment will have the effect of chilling discussion on important matters of public interest, including political speech, and undermine the important principles governing the defence of fair comment, set out by the Supreme Court of Canada" in the 2008 decision known as WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson, in which the court outlined a four-part test for fair comment.

Mr. Levant's appeal adds: "Defamation law cannot be used to intimidate public opinion or restrict freedom of thought." Quoting the WIC Radio decision, it notes "that courts should avoid 'an overly solicitous regard for personal reputation' to avoid the risk of chilling 'freewheeling debate on matters of public interest.' "

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