The truth will set you free, but only if you footnote it correctly.
The BC Supreme Court
ruled last September that activist Don Staniford’s 2011 campaign against a Norwegian fish farming company falls under the right to fair comment legislation, protecting Staniford from defamation charges.
The decision, however, has just been overturned by the BC Court of Appeals which ordered Staniford to pay $75,000 in damages to Mainstream Canada, a subsidiary of the Norwegian company Cermaq, in addition to a portion of the company's legal fees.
In 2011 Staniford, who returned to Britain after overstaying a visitor’s permit, posted images on his blog that resembled cigarette package health warnings, inscribed with slogans such as “Salmon Farming Kills,” “Salmon Farming is Poison” and “Salmon Farming Seriously Damages Health.”
The original BC Supreme Court ruling said that, while Staniford’s comments were defamatory, they were protected under the right to fair comment protection which states individuals have a right to offer opinion on matters of public interest.
According to Canadian law a fair comment statement must meet several criteria: it must pertain to a matter of public interest; it must be the party in question’s honest opinion; and that opinion must be based on facts. The BC Supreme Court judge said that, while Staniford spoke maliciously, his campaign reflected his true opinions about salmon farming, and his desire to see the industry change was his primary motivation. Those reading Staniford's words were free disagree with him and come to their own conclusions about the issue.
The BC Court of Appeal, while defending his use of fair comment, took issue with Staniford's use of facts. Although his facts were not found to be inaccurate, the court found they were not adequately cited on Staniford's blog.
“This opens up a whole new line of attack by these Norwegian multi-nationals to muzzle free speech,” Staniford told the CBC
, speaking from Ireland.
Norway owns 98 percent of the Pacific salmon fish farms in BC.
The decision includes an injunction against repeating the claims – which extends beyond Staniford himself – to include anyone who knowingly publishes the statements deemed defamatory:
“Any person who has already published or cause to be published the Defamatory Words shall, upon receiving notice of this Order, forthwith make all reasonable efforts to remove from the internet and any other medium upon which they are published, the entirely of any and all of the Defamatory Words.” This likely means news outlets who have reported on the case will be expected to remove the specific statements once the injunction kicks in on August 1.
In one of the definitive texts on defamation law across English-speaking countries, Gatley on Libel and Slander
, the right of fair comment is described as, “one of the fundamental rights of free speech and writing … and it is of vital importance to the rule of law on which we depend for our personal freedom. The right is a bulwark of free speech.”
And the very nature of free speech is precisely what Staniford's case calls into question. In this case it appears free speech lost out on a technicality: the missing footnote. Although there is ample science to defend Staniford's position on salmon farming, the BC Court of Appeal found he did not adequately cite the research defending his claims.
The ruling comes as another blow to wild salmon advocates working to demonstrate the negative effects of salmon farming in Canadian waters.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently worked to discredit
the research of Dr. Frederick Kibenge
of the world-renowned Atlantic Veterinary College of Prince Edward Island. After Kibenge found Infectious Salmon Anemia virus in fish in BC, CIFA – the same governing body responsible for the fish farming industry in Canada – disregarded Dr. Kibenge’s work and asked that his lab’s international certification be revoked.
Amidst a troubling lack of transparency
surrounding the fish farming industry in Canada, emerging research
suggests virus strains related to farmed fish are threatening wild salmon populations. Marine biologist Alexandra Morton
recently studied samples of both wild and farmed salmon sold in BC supermarkets and discovered high levels of Piscine Reovirus
(PRV), a disease originating in Norway that severely weakens salmon hearts. In her recently published paper
Morton demonstrates the virus traveled from Norway to BC and has now migrated to salmon populations near Chile.
Further study revealed that wild salmon who pass through Discovery Passage on the west coast of BC, the narrowest salmon route in the world and home to 11 fish farms, are contracting the disease as well.
Studies showing the health risks of farmed salmon, both to the species and its consumers, are not new. An extensive study conduction by the University of Indiana
on fish across North America, Chile and Europe almost ten years ago documented significantly elevated levels of toxins in farmed salmon over wild salmon. For people in numerous major cities, including Vancouver, the study recommended eating farmed salmon no more than twice a month.
Staniford plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Image credit: Stephen Rees via Flickr