Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Libel suits can cut both ways

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A libel action is a double-edged sword. It's that rare legal action that can leave a plaintiff -- the party that sues -- mortally wounded. The National Council of Canadian Muslims' threatened libel suit against the Harper government is a case in point.

The NCCM, which describes itself as a non-partisan and non-profit group that's worked 14 years on human rights issues on behalf of Canadian Muslims, has given preliminary notice of its intention to sue Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his chief spokesman and the federal government for libel. It has filed a libel notice in an Ontario court that accuses the prime minister's director of communications, Jason MacDonald, of making a false and defamatory statement that linked it to a terrorist group.

In mid-January, MacDonald rejected NCCM's criticism of the prime minister's decision to include Rabbi Daniel Karobkin of Toronto as part of his delegation on his Middle East trip. In a widely released letter to the PMO, the NCCM had linked Karobkin to those "promoting hateful views" of Muslims.

MacDonald, in replying to questions about NCCM's criticism said: "We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas." The Canadian government designated Hamas a terrorist entity in 2002.

The prime minister and Mr. MacDonald have put themselves in a dicey legal position. Unless they can furnish the documented proof Mr. MacDonald cited, they'd best retract the statement and quickly apologize to NCCM or they're apt to face a substantial damages award against them at trial for coupling NCCM and Hamas.

On the other hand, if the government can link either NCCM or CAIR-Canada, its former name, to Hamas, the libel suit will fail and the organization will be indelibly discredited.

Thus both sides face a big risk if the libel claim goes to trial.

The legal standoff is now at a critical stage. It's at a juncture where, though notice has been served as required by law, no libel suit has actually been commenced. If the government and NCCM are going to settle out of court, this is the most opportune time to do so, before claims and defences are filed in the court and legal costs start to escalate.

But settlement -- via apology, retraction, partial retraction or even an agreed-upon amendment of MacDonald's statement -- is unlikely. There's every chance this libel claim will go the distance. And at the end of the litigation, one side or the other is going to pay big time -- either in dollars or reputation.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 A8

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