A Supreme Court ruling that provides a new way for publications to defend against libel has put bloggers on more equal footing with journalists and could push public relations officials to change their tactics.
"This is a landmark decision," said media consultant and blogger Ian Capstick on Wednesday. "Journalists and bloggers, in regards to this particular law, are identical.… That's big news for the online sphere."
Tuesday's ruling allows publications to defend against a libel lawsuit even if some of their facts are later found to be untrue, provided they show they tried to verify the facts and the information is deemed to be in the public interest. It applies not just to journalists, but also bloggers and other people who disseminate information online.
However, a judge has the right to decide whether the information is in the public interest, whether there is enough evidence the publication tried to verify the facts, and therefore whether the defence can be used.
Capstick blogs about media, public relations, communications coaching and media training on the website of his Ottawa-based company, MediaStyle. In an earlier interview, he said the court decision does more than just reduce the fear of libel suits — it also means organizations who refuse to comment can't complain later if reporters are missing information.
"Communications consultants like myself … can no longer advise clients to say 'no comment,' or 'it's in front the courts,' or 'it's to be before the courts,'" he said. "All of these … well-worn phrases are on the way out."
Evan Thornton, who writes on two local Ottawa news blogs, said the ruling will force public relations officials to treat blogs more seriously.
"When a blog comes calling, it used to be very easy to say 'no comment,'" said Thornton. "'No comment' no longer cuts it, that's for sure."
On the flip side, if a journalist is alerted ahead of publication that his or her story is inaccurate, he or she would have a hard time using the new defence, at least one lawyer has warned.
Thornton who writes on Spacing Ottawa, a blog about local urban life, and on the Wellington Oracle, a news blog covering Ottawa's Hintonburg and West Wellington neighbourhoods, said the ruling clarifies the rules for bloggers like himself.
Clarifies 'grey area'
"Where blogging fits into the legal framework has felt like a grey area," he said.
The uncertainty sometimes led him to shy away from certain stories for fear of their legal implications, he added. Now, he said, he will feel more comfortable pursuing those stories.
While the ruling may offer more protection for bloggers in some ways, it may also force them to be more responsible, said Capstick.
"Whereas when bloggers previously would have gone with one-sourced piece of information, a rumour, that's clearly not acceptable any longer."
Tuesday's ruling came as a result of court appeals from the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen newspapers, who were fighting orders to pay libel awards of $1.5 million and $100,000 respectively.