Prud’homme vs. Municipalité de Rawdon

From Ad IDEM / CMLA

Jump to: navigation, search

The Prud’homme vs. Municipalité de Rawdon Decision: The Difficulty of Obtaining an Injunction in Defamatory Cases

The following summary was written by Anne-Julie Perrault. Excerpts from the original decision have been added for your reference.

This past March, the Quebec Court of Appeal overruled a Superior Court judgment that had granted a series of extraordinary orders, including an injunction barring a group of people from making defamatory statements about the municipality of Rawdon, its mayor, and its city manager. Although the Court of Appeal deemed some of the comments to be defamatory and compensable following a trial on the merits, it stressed that a high threshold of proof of damages must be met before an interlocutory injunction can be imposed and a website ordered offline.

Facts

In late 2007, a defamation campaign was initiated in a discussion forum on rawdon@qc.net, a website where Rawdon residents commented on municipal affairs. The posts presented as evidence included such comments as “liar, schemers, and bastard,” “shady deals that definitely smack of bribery and favouritism,” “the SS mayor,” “the brilliant psychopath who’s taken over as city manager.” The mayor, the city manager, and the municipality (the “plaintiffs”) responded by filing an injunction and defamation suit.

Procedures

The first hurdle they encountered was in identifying the defendants. The majority of the forum posts were signed with anonymous screen names (Astro, Ferret, Ghost, etc.). The plaintiffs obtained a variety of orders, from both the Quebec and Ontario Superior Courts (since the website was hosted in Ontario), authorizing the seizure of forum-related computer equipment in order to identify the authors of the posts in question.

The plaintiffs then obtained an interlocutory injunction against the defendants. This type of injunction is an extraordinary remedy whereby the Court can, based on summary evidence, impose immediate restrictions on a defendant before hearing the merits of the case. In addition to the order to disable the forum and take it offline, the interlocutory injunction unduly infringed on freedom of expression in ordering the defendants, among other things:

“to immediately cease disseminating, publishing, reproducing or causing to be circulated the defamatory remarks, in whole or in part, in the discussion forum . . . or through any other medium, verbally or in writing . . . .”;

“not to host, administer, moderate, or post defamatory remarks in a discussion forum on any other website”;“to respect the ban on making defamatory statements against the plaintiffs, either verbally or in writing, in any form whatsoever.”

[18] Les ordonnances ontariennes enjoignent à Inverdigm de désactiver le forum de discussion et de le retirer de l'Internet. Elles autorisent de plus les entreprises de télécommunications à dévoiler l'identité réelle ou les éléments susceptibles de permettre leur identification.

[19] De février 2008 à juin 2009, la Cour supérieure rend différentes ordonnances provisoires qu'elle reconduit de temps à autre et qui sont ainsi rédigées :

  • a) de cesser immédiatement de diffuser, publier, reproduire ou faire circuler les propos diffamatoires, en tout ou en partie, sur le forum de discussion du site Internet qui loge à l'adresse rawdon-qc.net ou, sous tout autre médium, verbalement ou par écrit, à partir de la date de l'institution des présentes procédures;
  • b) de ne pas héberger, administrer, agir comme modérateur et de ne pas tenir de propos diffamatoires sur un forum de discussion de tout autre site Internet;
  • c) de désactiver et de retirer du réseau Internet, dans les douze (12) heures de l'ordonnance obtenue, le forum de discussion sur le site Internet qui loge à l'adresse rawdon-qc.net à la date de l'institution des présentes procédures et de retirer du réseau de l'Internet tout document ou texte reproduisant les propos diffamatoires, en tout ou en partie, dudit site Internet;
  • d) de respecter l'interdiction de prononcer à l'endroit des demandeurs-requérants des propos diffamatoires tant verbalement que par écrit, sous quelque forme que ce soit;
  • e) de respecter l'interdiction d'émettre à l'endroit des demandeurs-requérants et de tenir à propos des demandeurs-requérants des propos diffamatoires ou injurieux;

In its ruling, the Court of Appeal began by stating that the Superior Court was right to conclude an apparent wrongdoing on the part of the defendants, “who, through their malicious conduct, caused injury to the reputation of the [plaintiffs].”

[51] À ce stade interlocutoire, la juge de la Cour supérieure a correctement conclu à la faute apparente des auteurs de ces propos qui, par leur conduite malveillante, auraient porté atteinte à la réputation des intimés. Cette première conclusion commande des commentaires additionnels.

However, the Court of Appeal considered that the order as drafted was too broad in scope, overly detrimental to freedom of expression, and did not meet the criteria for granting an interlocutory injunction in a defamation suit. Such an order must only be granted in the “clearest of situations,” which wasn’t the case in this instance. Among other things, the forum contained over 240 pages of text, of which only twenty-odd paragraphs could be considered defamatory. The Court argued that shutting down the website wasn’t justified, calling the measure “extreme and too drastic.” It also added that “such an action puts an abrupt end to the discussions already conducted, but also deprives the participants of a future communication vehicle to which they had freely subscribed.” Indeed, the order covered both past and future defamatory statements, whereas there was no proof that the authors intended to reoffend. The Court concluded that “the desired order must target specific remarks . . . an order that prohibits defamation in such broad terms unduly infringes on freedom of expression and necessarily has a chilling effect on the person in question.”

[71] Toutefois, la fermeture complète du site Internet n'était pas justifiée. En fonction de la preuve faite, la fermeture complète d'un forum de discussion qui contient 240 pages et qui traite de la vie municipale à Rawdon m'apparaît être une mesure extrême et trop drastique car, à la limite, le but recherché était le retrait d'un maximum de 22 paragraphes. Ce type de mesure s'avérera rarement approprié puisque non seulement une telle mesure met une fin brutale aux échanges déjà effectués, mais elle prive également les participants d'un mécanisme de communication futur auquel ils ont librement adhéré.

It was a welcome victory for the recognition of freedom of expression, but also one that sent a clear message about the kinds of comments people can make on Web forums. Freedom of expression isn’t absolute and even though visitors may use anonymous screen names, there are certain lines that can’t be crossed and legal recourses exist to reveal people’s identities.

Following the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the injunction, the municipality of Rawdon decided to drop the lawsuit on its merits. It remains to be seen whether the former mayor (who lost the November 2009 election) and city manager (who resigned at the same time) will decide to continue the fight at their own expense.


See Prud'homme c. Rawdon (Municipalité de) 2010 QCCA 584.

Personal tools