Ezra Levant libel trial kicks off as Canada's noisy hate-speech debate enters new chapter
by Joseph Brean |
Matthew Sherwood for National Post filesEzra Levant leaves a University Avenue court in Toronto on January 6, 2014.
A libel trial begins this morning in Toronto nearly six years after it was launched in the heat of Canada's first online culture war.
Pitting a Regina lawyer against a nationally known television personality who describes himself as "one of Canada's premier advocates of free expression," Khurrum Awan v. Ezra Levant is one of several defamation suits that arose from the fight over hate speech bans in human rights law. But as one of the last to come to trial, it marks a kind of bookend on Canada's noisy hate debate.
Spectators, including columnist Mark Steyn and famed hate case lawyer Barbara Kulaszka, packed the little courtroom on Toronto's University Avenue. Witnesses are expected to include the participants, National Post reporter Brian Hutchinson, and prominent lawyer Julian Porter, who used to act for Maclean's magazine.
Matthew Sherwood for National Post filesKhurrum Awan in Toronto in January.
Court documents indicate this week's trial will turn on Mr. Awan's claim that Mr. Levant, on his blog in 2009, "variously described [him] as "Khurrum Awan the liar," "stupid," a "fool," a "serial, malicious, money-grubbing liar," and "unequivocally implied that he was an anti-Semite and perjurer."
Back then, Mr. Awan was a law student, and the public face of an Ontario hate speech complaint against Maclean's magazine, citing columnist Mark Steyn, who is in attendance Monday, and Barbara Amiel among others, and backed by the Canadian Islamic Congress. Now Mr. Awan is a lawyer in Saskatchewan who has recently acted for plaintiffs against drug companies.
The failure of his hate speech complaint, and similar ones in British Columbia and federally, became the primary example for the argument that human rights tribunals had run amok as would-be censors, and the fiasco of their failure after a public hearing in Vancouver was a key motivation for the government's repeal last year of Section 13, the federal Internet hate law. This massive national pivot on hate laws, which leaves rare criminal prosecution as the only legal response to hate speech, was in response to a blog-based campaign led by Mr. Levant, and it marked an abject flip-flop for the federal Conservatives who previously supported Section 13.
Mr. Levant, who has since become the leading voice of Sun TV, was then a political activist and blogger on the front lines of the campaign against hate speech laws, and facing his own provincial complaint, later dropped, for publishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons. As such, he has written a great deal about Mr. Awan and his complaints of Islamophobia, and his blog posts form the heart of the evidence in the libel case.
The trial will also consider Mr. Levant's defence that his writing was covered by a "qualified privilege on the basis that they were published in good faith and the honest belief" in their fairness, accuracy and were relevant to a matter of public interest. He denies being motivated by malice.
Mr. Levant's new lawyer, Iain MacKinnon, has said the defence will "primarily" be fair comment.
Court records indicate his claim seeks $50,000 in damages, but that has now been increased to $100,000.
"The sting of the defamation goes to the heart of the plaintiff's professional reputation as a lawyer and is accordingly particularly egregious," Mr. Awan's claim states. Mr. Levant "attacked the integrity of a first year lawyer with false, vicious, malicious and scurrilous publications designed to humiliate, embarrass and ruined [sic] [Mr. Awan]."
By using the term "taqqiya" to describe Mr. Awan's action, he also claims that Mr. Levant "falsely stated by innuendo that [Mr. Awan] believes it is permissible to lie and utilize deceit in order to further Islamic objectives."
In his defence, Mr. Levant stands by the "liar" claim, which hinges on Mr. Awan's statement that he offered to drop the complaints if MacLean's would publish a rebuttal piece by a "mutually acceptable" author, and also whether he and his fellow complainants asked for money, or a charitable donation. He also states in his defence that the Canadian Islamic Congress is "an anti-Semitic organization."
Mr. Levant has also figured in some of the other lawsuits, otherwise unrelated, and in one case was judged to have libelled a lawyer for the Canadian Human Rights Commission with "reckless disregard of the truth."
Matthew Sherwood for National Post filesEzra Levant tries to get David Suzuki to answer questions in Toronto October 9, 2013. The Sun TV host is one of Canada's most outspoken critics of the left, which has set him up for several high-profile battles with prominent figures.
Libel is a classic example of a law that restricts the Charter right to free expression, but is also "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society," in the words of the Charter. Saved by defences of truth or fair comment, it offers a fair playing field for plaintiff and respondent to do battle.
The same was not always so of Canada's laws against hate speech, especially Section 13. For all his famous hyperbole, Mr. Levant said so, and Parliament agreed.
This week's trial will show whether — with all the defences he criticized Section 13 for lacking, like truth and fair comment-he can win again.
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