Anybody who posts defamatory information on the Internet is a broadcaster and can be sued as if they were a regular newspaper or broadcast outlet, an Ontario judge has ruled.
The decision exposes defendants to far higher damages than had been the case, since a defamatory statement on the Internet can potentially be read by so many people around the world.
Madam Justice Helen Pierce of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that while the Internet uses the same "infrastructure" as radio and television, it can reach a wider audience than either.
"The court must recognize and give effect to the purpose of the act - including the mischief it seeks to ameliorate," she said. "In this act, that harm is the widespread damage to reputation when a mass audience receives defamatory material."
Judge Pierce went on to dismiss a defamation claim against Orville Santa, a Thunder Bay city councillor being sued by Thunder Bay City Clerk Elaine Bahlieda.
The judge said that since Ms. Bahlieda had failed to launch her lawsuit within the allowable period for broadcast statements, it could not proceed to trial. However, she ruled that a portion of the claim relating to statements that Mr. Santa made and faxed can continue.
Ms. Bahlieda's lawsuit alleged that Mr. Santa libelled her by posting material harmful to her reputation in 2001.
"Think of the worldwide implications of the Internet," Mr. Santa's lawyer, Lorne Honickman, said yesterday. "The potential damages somebody who publishes on the Internet faces are enormous."
He said that Judge Pierce's ruling brings into play strict limits on the length of time broadcast plaintiffs have to initiate a libel action. In future, notice of such a suit must be served within six weeks of the plaintiff becoming aware of the posting, and then the plaintiff has three months in which to file a statement of claim.
Any plaintiff who fails to take action within the time period loses the right to sue, Mr. Honickman said.
He called Judge Pierce's ruling a double-edged sword. The existence of a limitation period for initiating an action helps to balance the spectre of high damage awards, he said.
"If you are found liable, you are facing much greater danger," Mr. Honickman said. "To me, it is proper that you should get that notice."
The principle behind a limitation period is to give a defendant an opportunity to apologize or retract his or her statement.
Mr. Honickman said it is the first time a Canadian court has decided the issue of whether an Internet posting qualifies as a broadcast under provincial libel and slander legislation.
People have always been subject to lawsuits for posting defamatory material, Mr. Honickman said, but not on the basis that they had broadcast the offensive material. He said that awards have been modest and did not reflect the broad reach of the Internet.
In a related ruling last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that on-line newspapers can be treated the same way as conventional newspapers for the purposes of the Ontario Libel and Slander Act.