Defamation on the Internet – B.C. Decision

I see there is a recent 304 paragraph decision in B.C. – Newman et al v. Halstead et al, 2006 BCSC 65 – in which the court awarded damages totalling $681,000 against an individual defendant (who did not appear at the trial, hence there was no defence per se) for her liability in making defamatory statements on her website, chat rooms and email about various teachers in which she made allegations of misconduct and allegations that the School Board mishandled or covered up this activity.

Be careful what you say on the Internet! Despite its often ephemeral nature, publication is publication, and although the foregoing decision does not analyze the nature of defamation on the Internet, the breadth of Internet transmission is so great as to outweigh any transitory notion that the information will not be there forever (also consider the impact of the Internet Archive, which periodically takes snapshots of information on the Internet).

On a teachable moment opportunity: I often used Internet defamation as a teaching example in teaching students how to effectively search the Index to Canadian Legal Literature (ICLL) online (the example also works well in searching a library catalogue using Library of Congress Subject Headings). A Boolean search on the ICLL database in WestlaweCARSWELL results in (the database is also on Quicklaw):

Internet and defamation = 14 hits

I then ask the students what is “wrong” with the search. In many cases, especially after we look at some hits, someone will realize the official descriptor in the records is “libel and slander” and that “defamation” may not catch all of the records. Experimenting with the search results in many more relevant hits:

(defam! or libel! or sland!) and internet = 38 hits

(defam! or libel! or sland!) and (internet or computer!) = 39 hits


  1. May I chime in with a non-technological comment that the damages in this case are grotesque? Until very recently, damages were rarely over $50,000 in Canadian defamation cases. Casey Hill’s judgement against Scientology was a big exception. There have been a few more since then. But can the reputations of the people defamed in this BC case have been worth over half a million?

    To tie it to technology for a moment: the courts have been on both sides of the question whether defamation on the Net is worse than on paper (because infinitely spreadable and accessible forever) or not so bad (because no one takes it seriously). I think the Canadian trend (BC and Ontario appeal courts, if I recall correctly) prefers the former. I am sceptical myself. I think evidence beyond the techology would be a help. (Maybe some of the reasoning in Bangoura in the Ont CA will be found relevant to this question as well.)

    One recalls policy arguments in favour of liability in defamation that it increases the credibility of the medium – “they wouldn’t say this if it weren’t true, because they’d be in big trouble.”

    I guess the BC courts are supporting the credibility of the Internet!

  2. Well that suggests a level of reputation affected by reputational damage that is quite out of line with what one would have thought a teacher in British Columbia would be worth. It wasn’t as if she was being accused of crimes of moral turpitude or as if her ability to earn a living had been ended by these gross falsehoods.
    I still wonder why English and Australian courts are more sympathetic to free expression arguments than Canadian.
    And if you want to see the argument that the web is different carried to excess, see Bodil Lindqvist’s case.

  3. Thanks for the comments – on the issue of damages in the first comment above – To be clear – I was lazy in stating the total damages: the $681,000 damages awarded against the defendant was made up of smaller awardsl. For example, the plaintiff named Newman (a teacher and one of the main targets of the defamation) was awarded $150,000 general damages; another plaintiff was awarded $75,000 etc. Punitive damages of $50,000 were awarded, to be shared by all plaintiffs.

  4. The damages in this case may seem excessive, but you have to place the defamation decision in the context of an ongoing political fight between the provincial government and the BC Teachers Federation, including a very bitter and controversial strike, including a one day general strike, in the fall by the teachers. Although this was brought by individual teachers, I’m sure t he BCTF was supporting the litigation, and the award was meant to set an example. Not that judges are supposed to act politically. Just to say that there was a lot of context to this case.