Criticize cops or politicians, get sued

New insurance proposals and bylaws would help/fund politicians and city officials sue citizens for “defamation” on social media.


The Union des municipalités du Québec wants to help its member politicians sue citizens that they believe have defamed them on the Internet.

This comes on the heels of a by-law adopted by the city of Granby in May that makes it illegal to use social media to criticize the police or any other city officials, with fines of up to $1,000 per incident. (An earlier version of the by-law already made it illegal to insult local cops and pols in person.)

The Granby by-law in essence subverts civil law governing slander and libel by allowing the municipality to ticket anyone it thinks has been rude to the local authorities. No need for the cops or politicians to hire lawyers and convince a judge that the insults fall within the legal parameters of defamation. Nope, just write up a ticket for Disturbing the Police or Cursing the Councillor, then, if the malfeasant maligner doesn’t want to put money in the city’s swear jar, he can try to prove his innocence in municipal court.

Unlike the Granby by-law, the UMQ insurance proposal, at least, doesn’t subvert existing libel laws. It would just make it easier for municipal politicians to sue citizens by covering some or all of the court costs. Cities already pick up the legal tab when public officials are sued for decisions they made in office — which is fair — but the insurance would pay for politicians who want to go on the offensive.

The arguments being put forward to defend the proposal are that a) politicians shouldn’t have to put up with public defamation as part of their job and b) the costs of launching a libel suit are prohibitively expensive for part-time councillors in backwater burgs.

Um, a) yes they should and b) boo-hoo.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with this proposal as long as 100 per cent of the costs are borne by the people taking the insurance. But if it is going to be subsidized by taxpayers, even indirectly through UMQ membership fees, it’s a horrible idea.

Let’s start with the first argument. Anyone who throws their hat into the political ring knows that it’s often a blood sport. You’re going to be criticized, fairly and unfairly, and sometimes people are going to call you names. The more effective you are, the nastier the names. They will include crook, liar and thief. If you are a woman, you can expect an additional layer of gratuitous sexist slurs that (to use just the politer terms) will include stupid, ugly, bitch and whore. They will come from anonymous Internet trolls, they will come from the kindly old lady from down the block.

With the advent of the Internet, water-cooler and street-corner trash-talking now reaches a much wider audience, and the ability to make these comments anonymously has brought all the cowards scurrying from the dark corners of their parents’ basements.

These types of attacks are not limited, however, to municipal politicians. They happen to teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and aboriginal chiefs. Online ripostes regularly target feminists, academics, unionists, cops, construction workers, weather forecasters, hockey coaches and trash collectors. Yet we don’t see anyone suggesting our taxes should be used to help sue the guys who say Georges Laraque is one of the worst players in recent Habs’ history, or whose teacher evaluations suggest John Doe is the dumbest history prof in the school board.

Which brings us to the second argument: equity.

True equity would require a system that would cover the legal costs of everyone who felt libelled by things people wrote about them on Facebook. Even if you limited it to the ridiculously impoverished people eligible for the legal aid system (which currently doesn’t cover you suing someone), the courts would clog up like a toilet filled with clumping cat litter. (Not that I know anyone who would do something that stupid.)

So, yes, it’s unfair that rich people can more easily afford to drag someone to court than poor people, but if we’re going to pump public money into levelling the suing field, there are a lot more important areas of civil law we can champion than protecting small-town mayors and their minions from a little mudslinging.


Finally, rural politicians are not the only ones who could find the financial implications of a libel lawsuit intimidating. The people who are being sued could also fear that little Suzie’s college fund will end up in a lawyer’s RRSP, producing an effect known as “libel chill,” where the mere threat of a lawsuit can stop critics from making even perfectly legal and reasonable claims and accusations.

Making it cheaper to sue citizens for expressing opinions isn’t a victory for democracy, it’s a muzzle on free speech. Current laws against threats and hate speech are sufficient to cover true cases of criminal harassment, politicians need to turn the other cheek when it comes to lesser forms of dissent. ■



Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.