Sticks and stones?

Duelling – Monty Python-style

Everybody knows the old schoolyard chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. However, lately there seems to have been a spate of high-profile cases of (alleged) defamation and libel, with varying degrees of success. While the idea of defending one’s honour typically conjures up visions of duels (including the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and American Vice President Aaron Burr), given that shooting people – whether it is in defence of honour or not – is typically frowned upon in modern society, recourse is now more typically found in the courts.

Two particularly high profile cases have been making the rounds recently. The first involved Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who, during the course of his successful campaign for the mayoralty, made disparaging comments about the contract awarded to the Boardwalk Pub, which operates at Woodbine Beach. Ford suggested that there had been corruption involved, an allegation that the owner of the pub took exception to. In response, he filed a $6 million libel suit against the Mayor (which was one of only three major legal battles Ford fought in a short period of time). Ultimately, Ford was successful. The full text of the court’s decision can be found here.

The other high profile case (and perhaps I am betraying a touch of librarian bias here) is the case of the Edward Mellen Press and McMaster University and its Associate University Librarian, Dale Askey. In a nutshell, the case revolves around the Mellen Press suing Askey and McMaster for libel due to a less-than-favourable assessment of Mellen’s offerings as a part of a blog post that he had written when at Kansas State University. The Mellen Press has been very assiduous in protecting its reputation, and this is in keeping with its policy. For those who are interested in reading up on the ongoing story, there is an excellent blog which is offering updates as they arise. Not surprisingly, given the serious implications of such claims, there has been a great deal of scrutiny and interest in the case, so it is well worth keeping tabs on.

Given the enormous breadth of issues that can arise in the course of a defamation action (such as – but certainly not limited to – libel, slander, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and so on), it is not surprising that we have a tremendous amount of material pertaining to the subject, including the sinister-sounding (if antiquated) concept of “seditious libel“.

Oh, and a history of duelling in Canada. But just in case you ever feel so inclined to challenge somebody to a duel or take up said challenge, you should make sure to check s. 71 of the Criminal Code first.

Additional note (April 6): I forgot to mention another classic and enjoyable read that deals with libel, and is available in our fiction collection – QB VII by Leon Uris. Indeed, as the bibliographic note indicates, this was one of the books that was donated to form the core of our fiction collection, and with good reason.