Alleged Victim of Defamation Goes After the Accessibility of Online Newspaper Archives
By Sarah D. Pinsonnault
In Lavoie c. Vailles (2013 QCCS 3911), the Plaintiff instituted a motion against the Defendants, the newspaper La Presse and one of its journalists, for having published allegedly defamatory articles about him. One of the conclusions he sought was a safeguard order whereby La Presse would have to, inter alia, immediately remove said articles from its website’s archives.
It should be noted that these legal proceedings began in February 2013, with a formal notice being served by the Plaintiff. When La Presse refused to follow through with this formal notice, the Plaintiff introduced, three months later, the aforesaid motion.
Moreover, it was only in July 2013 that the Plaintiff amended his motion to include an application for a safeguard order.
In light of the foregoing, the case at bar dealt solely with the application for the safeguard order and the criteria needed for it to be granted.
As with all safeguard orders, the party seeking such a remedy must prove, among other things, the criterion of urgency. In this case, the Court deemed that the latter was not met, given that roughly five months had passed since the Plaintiff initially began alluding to, by way of his formal notice, the significant impact the articles had on his career as a notary.
In fact, there had been no new articles published about him since November 2012. The Plaintiff nevertheless reproached La Presse for rendering said articles still accessible to the public via its online archives:
“ Et il réfère à une recherche qu’il a faite par l’entremise du moteur de recherche Google qui fait ressortir les articles publiés dans La Presse, et ce, avant même son site web. Il n’y a pas eu de nouveaux articles depuis le mois de novembre. Ce que reproche le demandeur à la défenderesse est l’accessibilité de ces articles sur le site web de La Presse. En d’autres termes, le demandeur reproche l’accessibilité aux archives de La Presse.”
The Court then proceeded to examine the other criteria needed to grant such an order, notably those of “balance of convenience” and “irreparable harm”. In doing so, the Court referred to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision, Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Canadian Liberty Net,  no AZ-98111047 (C.S.C.), that recognized that when outside of pure commercial matters, it is almost impossible to use these criteria without undermining the right to freedom of expression, as found in s. 2(b) of the Charter. After all, aside from the party seeking the order, there is no real tangible interest for the “non-commercial speaker” other than simply wishing to exercise his right to freedom of speech.
Therefore, as opposed to the act of balancing both parties’ private interests, it is rather public interest in general that must be weighed against the individual interests of the speaker at the balance of convenience stage. On that note, the Court emphasized the guiding principle, as set forth by the Supreme Court in these types of cases, which dictates that such an order can only be granted when the words are “manifestly defamatory”.
In the case at bar, the Court did not consider La Presse’s articles to be “manifestly defamatory” and ruled that public interest must prevail. In doing so, the Plaintiff’s application for a safeguard order was denied:
«  C’est le cas dans la présente affaire. Il s’agit d’une affaire d’intérêt public et cet intérêt prime l’intérêt individuel du demandeur. Nous ne sommes pas en présence d’un cas manifeste de diffamation. Ce n’est pas parce que l’accessibilité aux archives est plus facile et plus grande aujourd’hui que l’on doit priver le public à l’information publique. On ne peut pas effacer des archives ce qui a été publié. Si la partie défenderesse s’est trompée, elle paiera chèrement les dommages qu’elle aura causés. »
The Court nevertheless raised an interesting point when it alluded to how the internet has changed the accessibility of newspaper archives:
«  Aujourd’hui, les moyens techniques – comme l’internet – nous rapprochent davantage des archives, lesquelles sont plus facilement accessibles qu’auparavant. Autrefois, il fallait ou aller à la bibliothèque et faire des recherches ou se présenter chez l’éditeur et consulter et fouiller les microfiches. Aujourd’hui, un simple nom, un mot-clé et un clic de souris sur un moteur de recherche suffisent à identifier et retrouver des articles en archives sur un sujet donné. »
Understandably, the Court did not elaborated on this statement because this case focused mainly on the criteria needed for safeguard orders. Nevertheless, it calls into question a troublesome issue that arises in online defamation cases; that being the permanent accessibility to the allegedly defamatory statements online.
By way of comparison, an interesting decision that hails from
“ We do not accept that the rule in the Duke of Brunswick imposes a restriction on the readiness to maintain and provide access to archives that amounts to a disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression. We accept that the maintenance of archives, whether in hard copy or on the internet, has a social utility, but consider that the maintenance of archives is a comparatively insignificant aspect of freedom of expression. Archive material is stale news and its publication cannot rank in importance with the dissemination of contemporary material. Nor do we believe that the law of defamation need inhibit the responsible maintenance of archives. Where it is known that archive material is or may be defamatory, the attachment of an appropriate notice warning against treating it as the truth will normally remove any sting from the material.” (our emphasis)
It is also worth nothing that the above quote ends with an interesting recommendation whereby when, for example, an archived article “may be defamatory”, the online publisher could accompany that latter with a warning that notifies the public of its contentious nature. In turn, the public would not be deprived of this information (thereby preserving the right to freedom of expression), and yet should ever said article later be proven by a court of law as being defamatory, part of the damages incurred by the victim will have been mitigated.
The full text of the judgment Lavoie c. Vailles (2013 QCCS 3911) can be read here.