Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Supreme Court of British Columbia awarded the plaintiff, Andrew Weaver, $50,000 in general damages and ordered the defendants, the National Post and affiliates, to remove the defamatory articles from an online newspaper. Essentially, the Court reasoned that the articles were defamatory because they had no basis in fact and would lead an ordinary reader to conclude that the plaintiff was dishonest and professionally incompetent. Additionally, because of the complete lack of an evidentiary basis for the statements in the article, the Court found that the “fair comment” affirmative defense to defamation could not apply.
The plaintiff, Andrew Weaver, was a professor at the University of Victoria and a well-known scientist in the field of climate dynamics. The defendants are the National Post, its publisher, and several journalists who published articles in the Post.
Weaver alleged that four articles published by the National Post defamed him by suggesting he was (1) biased; (2) had made up stories about break-ins at his offices; and (3) had possibly participated in a wide-reaching conspiracy on the part of certain scientists to falsely report data to support their position that global warming was real. After the four articles were published, their content was disseminated online and reached a global audience. Weaver’s integrity was questioned by readers of the articles in comments and he was subjected to insults at his place of work. The Post removed reader comments that Weaver complained about within one to two days. However, the articles remained available online with the invitation that readers share them.
The Court found that the National Post had impermissibly defamed the plaintiff in articles posted to its website. The Court awarded the plaintiff $50,000 in general damages and ordered the Post and its journalists to remove the articles from all electronic databases and to publish a complete retraction in a form that met the approval of Weaver.
The Court found that the articles in question contained statements that would lead an ordinary reader to infer that Weaver was deceiving the public about the issue of climate change, and furthermore, that Weaver was incompetent as a scientist. Weaver’s personal and scientific reputation suffered as a direct result of the articles. He suffered from derogatory comments at his place of work and the general public questioned his articles and his integrity as a scientist, as demonstrated through reader comments on the Post’s articles.
Notably, the Court rejected the Post’s “fair comment” affirmative defense to the defamation claim. It found that fair comment could not apply because there was no evidence and no basis for asserting that Weaver had ever engaged in any of the activities that the articles alleged. Rather, the Court noted that the journalists involved, self-identified climate change skeptics, deliberately created a negative impression of Weaver–a scientist seeking to promote climate change awareness. The Court found that the journalists were careless or indifferent towards the accuracy of the facts they reported.
Moreover, the Court found that the defamatory statements were republished at the invitation of the authors and the Post, so the Post was also responsible for encouraging the global spread of the articles.
Nevertheless, the Post was not held responsible for defamatory reader comments, and the Court found that the Post took reasonable steps to remove such postings when the issue was brought to the Post’s attention.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The holding does not expand expression so much as it protects the right to defend one’s reputation against false news. The holding did order the removal of news content from the publisher’s website, but the content had no basis in fact and therefore could not be said to be truly journalistic. Thus, the holding contracted the news source’s expression only insofar as it held the source accountable for publishing false news.
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.
This decision has binding authority within its jurisdiction. The lower courts of British Columbia are bound to follow this decision.
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