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JUSTICE REPORTER

The Supreme Court of Canada transformed the country's libel laws yesterday with a pair of decisions that proponents say will expand the boundaries of free speech.

The court ruled that libel lawsuits will rarely succeed against journalists who act responsibly in reporting their stories when those stories are in the public interest.

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It also updated the laws for the Internet age, extending the same defence to bloggers and other new-media practitioners.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said that Canada needs to keep in step with several other Western democracies that have provided greater protection to the media.

"Freewheeling debate on matters of public interest is to be encouraged and the vital role of the communications media in providing a vehicle for such debate is explicitly recognized," Chief Justice McLachlin said in a pair of 9-0 decisions.

Although the court acknowledged that free expression does not "confer a licence to ruin reputation," it argued society is best served by fearless commentary and investigative journalism.

The court ordered new trials for a Toronto newspaper that exposed a questionable land deal and an Ottawa newspaper that raised questions about the conduct of a police officer who helped search for survivors after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York.

The media were exultant about the rulings. "This is a historic turn for Canadian media, who have long suffered an undue burden of proof," said Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse. "We should not take our responsibility any more lightly, but we should celebrate the fact that the heavier blinds of Canadian libel law have been pulled back. The acceptance of this new defence by the Supreme Court of Canada will greatly advance the cause of freedom of expression, transparency and responsible journalism in Canada."

Chief Justice McLachlin said that context is critical. She urged trial judges not to parse controversial statements in isolation, but to consider the entire subject matter.

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Other critical factors listed by the court were: the seriousness of a published allegation; the public importance and urgency of the issue; the status and reliability of a source; and whether the plaintiff's side of the story was sought and accurately reported.

In the first case - Peter Grant v. Torstar Corp. - the court said that a Toronto Star reporter worked hard to get to the bottom of allegations that Mr. Grant and his company might have used political influence in securing the location of a private golf course development.

Paul Schabas, a lawyer for the Star, said yesterday that the ruling "is hugely important; the most important libel decision ever released by the Supreme Court. It is a victory for the right to speak responsibly about public matters - to put issues to the public and let the public debate and decide."

The second ruling involved a former Ontario Provincial Police officer - Danno Cusson - who presented himself as a trained dog handler at ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Reports in the Ottawa Citizen characterized Mr. Cusson as a wannabe who got in the way of legitimate searchers while he was attempting to free trapped survivors.

The ruling cancels a $125,000 award a jury made to Mr. Cusson at trial.

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Dean Jobb, a journalism professor at University of King's College in Halifax, said that a revamping of the libel laws was long overdue.

"The court has recognized that the definition of 'journalist' is expanding in our online world," Prof. Jobb said. "Bloggers and anyone else publishing information on matters of public interest can claim the defence, provided the way they gather and present the news conforms with the ethical standards of journalists."

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