Content Regulation / Censorship
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) v. Mohamed Hamid Salem
On Appeal Mixed Outcome
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The Quebec Superior Court declined to dismiss a suit filed by two airlines against an activist for publishing the contact data of corporate employees. The suit was filed after Jeremy Cooperstock began publishing the names and contact information of United Airlines and Continental Airlines employees for alleged wrongdoing, resulting in their harassment by readers; Cooperstock filed a motion to dismiss, reasoning that the suits were “strategic litigation against public participation” (SLAPP) and therefore illegal under Quebecois law. The Court, rejecting the motion to dismiss, found that posts led to the harassment of airline employees and reasoned that the lawsuits did not limit public participation nor were they designed to silence criticism of the airlines.
In 2012, United Airlines and Continental Airlines, along with three employees, sued Jeremy Cooperstock, an engineering professor, for injunctive relief. Cooperstock is the founder and publisher of the website UNTIED.com, which documents the negative treatment airline passengers endure while flying these airlines. His publications include the names and contact information of employees who have allegedly mistreated airline customers. Cooperstock’s website is aesthetically and, perhaps farcically, similar to the United Airlines website. The airlines sought an injunction “prohibiting Mr. Cooperstock from posting the names and contact information of any and all employees.”
Cooperstock filed two motions to dismiss these requests under Canadian law. On February 15, 2013, hearings on both motions were held before Justice Kirkland Casgrain, who denied them. Cooperstock then sought leave to appeal the denial of one of his motions to dismiss. On September 26, 2013, the Quebec Court of Appeal granted the appeal, reversed Justice Casgrain’s denial, and ordered a new hearing on the remanded motion.
In a decision from the Quebec Superior Court, Micheline Perrault, J.S.C., denied Cooperstock’s motion to dismiss. Justice Perrault found that the suit against Cooperstock did not violate Quebec’s anti-SLAPP laws.
Quebec Code of Civil Procedure Article 54 (Sections 1 through 5) permits a court to dismiss a lawsuit if the lawsuit is “abusive” and attempts to abridge a citizen’s freedom of speech and expression. These matters are ones that the law characterizes as “clearly unfounded, frivolous or dilatory or in a conduct that is vexatious or quarrelsome.” Quebec prohibits actions that pervert justice and “restrict freedom of expression in public debate.” Since the motion remanded to the trial court was filed under these anti-SLAPP provisions, the Court analyzed whether the airlines’ lawsuit fell under Quebec’s anti-SLAPP laws. The question at issue was whether the airlines’ actions were “improper within the meaning of Articles 54.1 et seq. C.C.P.?”
After holding a lengthy hearing, the Court methodically denied each of Cooperstock’s arguments. First, the Court disagreed that the airlines’ claims were “unfounded, frivolous and vexatious.” Instead, it found that as a result of Cooperstock’s posting the names and contact information for several airline employees, those employees had received abusive and threatening communications from readers of UNTIED.com. The Court further found that testimony regarding the causality of Cooperstock’s website to these communications was credible. It also held that none of the employees’ conduct was truly “blameworthy,” which would have potentially merited the harassment.
Perhaps most importantly, in the context of Cooperstock’s anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, the Court found that airlines’ lawsuit did not constitute an excessive or unreasonably restriction on “Cooperstock’s freedom of expression in a public debate.” The Court drew a line between Cooperstock’s ability to criticize the airlines—a right to which he is clearly entitled—and his right to publish the corporate contact information for employees he believes have wronged customers. The Court held that even though Cooperstock “knew” that his publication of the contact information was being misused, he still refused to remove it. Further, the Court reasoned that the airlines had no obligation to “mitigate” their damages by changing the contact information for the employees named on Cooperstock’s website or forwarding calls to these employees to other airline workers.
In conclusion, citing Quebec law, which appears to disfavor granting a motion to dismiss, even one brought under the province’s anti-SLAPP laws, the Court denied Cooperstock’s motion to dismiss.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Although the decision expressly notes that Cooperstock has a right to criticize United Airlines and its affiliates, arguably the decision limits Cooperstock’s freedom of expression by implying that he may not have a right to publish the corporate contact information for individual employees.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The Cooperstock order was issued on remand by a Canadian Superior Court in Montreal. Therefore, although it does not present binding precedent within any jurisdiction, particularly because the anti-SLAPP laws are relatively new, courts may utilize the opinion in future lawsuits.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.