A self-styled anti-Muslim pundit has been ordered to pay $2.5-million in damages to a Toronto-area restaurateur, in a ruling in which the judge said that hateful internet speech needs to be confronted.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Jane Ferguson awarded the multimillion-dollar settlement to Mohamad Fakih, the owner of Paramount Fine Foods, a Lebanese-born businessman who was targeted by two anti-Muslim activists, defendant Kevin J. Johnston and Ranendra (Ron) Banerjee.
Lawyers specializing in defamation cases said the ruling, with its strong language and massive damages award, was a significant development in cyber libel law.
The $2.5-million damages are “by far and away the largest cyber verdict that’s sitting on the record right now,” said Vancouver lawyer Roger McConchie, whose law firm focuses on defamation, especially cyber libel.
The case set a “very interesting benchmark in terms of quantum of damages,” he added.
“It’s a powerful condemnation against people who defame people on the internet,” said veteran Ottawa libel litigator Richard Dearden.
“This will be a case that cyber libel plaintiffs will bring out as a guidepost [to assess] the severity of damages.”
In a decision released on Monday, Justice Ferguson said the case unfolded in the context of “this fractious 21st century – where social media and the internet allow some of the darkest forces in our society to achieve attention.”
She said the defendant’s behaviour was “a loathsome example of hate speech at its worst, targeting people solely because of their religion. Left unchallenged, it poisons the integrity of our democracy.”
The lawyer for the plaintiff concurred. “In these times when so many people feel entitled to attack and vilify religious and racial minorities, it’s gratifying to see the courts draw a clear line,” Jonathan Lisus said in an interview.
The defendant, Mr. Johnston, a one-time mayoral candidate for Mississauga, operates various internet platforms, including a YouTube channel, his own website and now-suspended Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“Mr. Johnston profits from the promotion of hatred,” the judge said in her ruling, noting that he solicited donations, sold “anti-Muslim paraphernalia” and took paid speaking engagements where he uttered anti-Muslim statements.
The case started when one of Mr. Fakih’s restaurants played host to a Liberal Party fundraiser attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 20, 2017.
Mr. Johnston and Mr. Banerjee staged a protest outside. In the following days, Mr. Johnston posted videos alleging among other things that Mr. Fakih supported terrorism, that the restaurateur received money from Pakistan’s spy agency and that “you have to be a jihadist or have raped someone else’s wife as a condition of entry to the restaurant.”
Mr. Banerjee, who appeared on the videos, was also sued. He tried to have the suit dismissed as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). However, his bid was rejected and he settled with Mr. Fakih and issued an apology.
Mr. Johnston, however, carried on. “If he thinks I’m settling this out of court, he’s on glue,” he told The Globe and Mail in an August, 2017, interview.
Justice Ferguson’s ruling portrayed Mr. Johnston as an unrepentant man who issued more verbal attacks against Mr. Fakih, harassed him and his lawyer, tried to evade process servers and ignored court orders.
Mr. Johnston argued that his remarks were political satire. The judge, however, found that his words were violent and threatening, falling outside of the protection of the Charter of Rights.
Justice Ferguson noted that the damages sought by Mr. Fakih didn’t make up for the loss of a business deal, worth more than $2.6-million, due to the attacks against him.
Even so, the $2.5-million amount is one of the largest defamation awards in Canada. Mr. McConchie mentioned the 1995 libel case where the Church of Scientology was ordered to pay $1.6-million. That amount would be equivalent to $2.48-million in today’s dollars.
In addition to the financial awards, the court ordered Mr. Johnston to stay at least 100 metres away from Mr. Fakih and his family and from Mr. Lisus’s office.
Even if Mr. Johnston is unable to pay the damages, Mr. McConchie said the judgment will enable Mr. Fakih to “kill off any notion in the public sphere that there’s anything wrong with [him].”