Freedom to Read Week panel celebrates legal victory for authors
As part of the events marking Freedom to Read Week, which takes place Feb. 21–27, the Book and Periodical Council is hosting a panel discussion that will draw attention to a recent victory for freedom of expression.
Set to take place at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel on Feb. 23, the discussion will explore the implications of a 2009 Supreme Court decision that gives writers and journalists a new defence against libel lawsuits. The panel, called “The Good Fight!,” will be moderated by writer Erika Ritter and includes Toronto Star public editor Kathy English, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin, and media lawyers Brian MacLeod Rogers and Paul Schabas.
The Supreme Court ruling is the result of an appeal by the Toronto Star against Ontario developer Peter Grant, who had been awarded damages of $1.45 million over a 2001 article about his plans to expand a private golf course on his property in northern Ontario. In the article, local residents were quoted as saying that a planned golf course was a “done deal” because of Grant’s political connections (he was a personal friend of former Ontario premiere Mike Harris).
Known as the “responsible communication” defence, the court decision allows journalists to fight such charges even if some published facts turn out to be wrong – as long as they prove the matter is of public interest and they pursued all avenues to find the truth.
Although critics worry that this defence will allow journalists to publish “rumours and innuendo,” English says the onus is still on writers to prove they have made their best effort to get both sides of a story. She calls the court’s decision a “game changer” that will allow writers to pursue stories they might have otherwise avoided because of the threat of unfounded lawsuits.
“The court has set a number of standards that have to be met in order to use this defence: to check your sources, to understand if they have an axe to grind, to minimize the use of anonymous sources. These are all measures of excellence in journalism anyway,” English says. “I think this will hold journalists to their highest standards.”
Ritter, who will moderate the discussion, says she believes the panel will attract writers of all types. The panelists will address a number of questions: What should be the limits of free expression? When does that freedom turn into hate speech? What direction do media lawyers see this issue taking?
The evening will also include the presentation of the annual Freedom to Read Award, which will be given by The Writers’ Union of Canada to lawyer Alan Borovoy. Borovoy, who spent decades working as general council for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, retired last year.
The panel is part of a series of events being held across the country to mark Freedom to Read Week. In B.C., the Greater Victoria Public Library is hosting an ongoing Freedom to Read book review contest for teenagers, while in Saskatoon, McNally Robinson Booksellers is holding a photo contest in which customers will vote on images that best represent the idea of freedom to read. Others can celebrate simply by breaking out The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Of Mice and Men – just a few of the classic novels recently challenged (unsuccessfully) for having controversial themes.