Net not a defamation-free zone

For the London Free Press - October 3, 2011 Read this on Canoe

ONLINE: ONTARIO SUPERIOR COURT DECISION DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN SAY WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH IMPUNITY

The Ontario Superior Court recently decided that a blog comment must pass a higher threshold before it's considered defamatory than statements made in other places.

Defamation is the communication to third parties of a false statement that tends to injure the reputation of an individual. Slander is oral defamation. Libel is written defamation.

The reasoning in the case of Baglow v. Smith includes the thought that an ongoing blogging thread is akin to a debate. The person who felt wronged by a comment has an opportunity to reply to set the record straight and lessen the impact on his reputation of the original statement.

That makes sense if the two parties were already both involved in the online banter. But might be less applicable if the aggrieved party had not been involved in the debate prior to the comment.

Another thought was that given the nature of the online forum, readers would be less likely to interpret comments such as in this case -- which suggested the person was a Taliban supporter -- as being intended to be factual.

It probably didn't help the complainant's case that he had made some derogatory comments of his own in the comment thread. To determine if a statement is defamatory, it must be looked at in the context of the conversation or publication as a whole, and not as an isolated statement.

But this decision doesn't mean the Internet is a defamation- free zone and that one can say whatever one wants with impunity. It just means the analysis as to whether particular comments on the Internet amount to defamation considers the nature of the medium. That makes sense, as defamation is about what the public thinks as a result of the comment.

Earlier defamation decisions about material posted on the Internet have awarded higher damage awards than if it had been published on paper. The rationale is there is a broader distribution of the comment.

So we could be in the position where a defamatory comment in an article on the Internet or in a blog post or on some form of social media might have a risk of a higher damage award -- but the threshold for being considered defamatory in the first place is higher. In other words, more potential damages, but less risk of being found defamatory in the first place.

And the risk of a comment being considered defamatory might be less if discussion ensues, especially if the aggrieved party is involved in the discussions.

The bottom line -- if someone makes a comment online about you that you think might affect your reputation, you should think carefully about what to do about it.

On the one hand, it might not attract enough attention to do any real harm, and the wrong reaction might just bring more attention to it. On the other hand, its online nature gives the opportunity for a measured, rational reply to set the record straight.