Law Times: Israeli issue sparks legal row between lawyers

Law Times, Monday, January 16, 2012, Written by Kendyl Sebesta

A London, Ont., immigration lawyer is seeking $25,000 in libel damages from a fellow lawyer who allegedly called him an anti-Semite.

Lawyer Edward Corrigan is seeking $25,000 from William Hechter.

The case, Corrigan v. Hechter, began in September 2010 as lawyer Edward Corrigan sought damages from William Hechter, a non-practising lawyer who’s president of Excalibur Capital Management in Toronto.

The case involves Hechter’s alleged comments in response to Corrigan’s statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since then, Hechter filed a statement of defence and exhibits and the case moved to a settlement conference.

By March 2011, a settlement still proved to be elusive for the pair and the claim moved from London to the Small Claims Court in Toronto where Hechter and several of the witnesses appearing in the case live.

Those 12 witnesses include civil liberties lawyer Clayton Ruby and Windsor, Ont., lawyer Victoria Cross appearing for Hechter and a Jewish academic and a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer appearing for the plaintiff, Corrigan told Law Times in an e-mail.

At a pretrial settlement conference in November 2011, the case remained unresolved. By December, after an additional pretrial conference, the case again failed to reach a settlement.

By Dec. 22, a settlement conference judge had set the case down to schedule a trial. But Hechter, who says discussions that began nearly three weeks ago could prove fruitful, expects that the pair will reach a settlement within the week.

“The matter is being completely, 100-per-cent settled,” says Hechter. “We are in settlement discussions now and we expect them to end in about a week.”

In June 2010, Corrigan asked Hechter to apologize for and remove an e-mail he had allegedly sent to several members of the Law Union of Ontario that called Corrigan “one of Canada’s worst anti-Semites” and an “idiotic spammer.”

Hechter allegedly made the comments after Corrigan sent three e-mails in three days in June 2010 to Law Union members containing news articles and commentary that were critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, according to Hechter’s statement of defence.

However, as Hechter allegedly refused to apologize for his comments and debate later ensued among Law Union members over the tone and nature of Corrigan’s e-mails, the plaintiff took the matter first to the organization and then to court, where he later filed more than 50 letters of support and several pages of articles to disprove Hechter’s claims that he was anti-Semitic.

“In this case, not defending Israeli government politics does not mean one is against the Jews or is anti-Semitic,” wrote Portugal Supreme Court Justice Antonio Colaco in a letter of support filed by Corrigan in the case.

“I do not mix their interest with state interests, although the government has the duty to fulfil its people’s will.”

But in Hechter’s statement of defence, he alleges Corrigan went further than failing to defend Israeli politics and instead claimed the plaintiff was an “obsessive contributor” to the Law Union’s mailing list on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian politics.

“The opinions he expresses to the LUO List (Law Union of Ontario mailing list) membership on the subject are always critical of Israel,” Hechter wrote in his statement of defence.

“He is routinely the initiator of debate, and also persistently engages in, invites, and participates in debate and argument via the LUO List on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”

Hechter added that the content, volume, and nature of Corrigan’s e-mails had offended many of the Law Union’s members.

“I blocked Ed Corrigan’s e-mails,” court documents quote Law Union member Cathy Pike as saying in an e-mail to the organization’s mailing list three days after Corrigan’s messages that June.

“I found an article entitled ‘Zionist Distortion of History,’ I believe. I found it anti-Semitic  in tone. I think the volume and tenor of the postings does suggest anti-Semitism.”

But Corrigan argued in his statement of claim that he was simply offering a different viewpoint on Israeli politics. He alleged Hechter’s e-mail was “offensive, slanderous, and, of course, inaccurate.” None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Corrigan also claimed the news articles he had shared in his three June 2010 e-mails to the Law Union mailing list provided commentary on Israeli-Palestinian relations rather than statements that were anti-Semitic in nature.

“The vast majority of my articles published on the Israel-Palestine issue has been quoting Jewish and Israeli authors in defence of Palestinian human rights,” Corrigan told Law Times in an e-mail. “Quoting Jewish writers can hardly be considered anti-Semitic.

The rest of my published articles are on immigration and refugee issues or other political matters.”

Prior to launching the lawsuit, Corrigan had forwarded an article by Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin that was critical of Israeli politics to several Law Union members.

He also mentioned writer Margaret Atwood’s article “The shadow over Israel.”

Hechter alleged in his statement of defence that Corrigan’s reference to Salutin, along with several other notes about writers’ religions, was anti-Semitic in nature.

He also responded to Corrigan’s e-mail on the Law Union mailing list by making the allegedly libellous comments in question.

But he defended himself on the grounds that his alleged remarks were fair comment on a matter of public interest; were subject to qualified privilege given that the e-mails went only to members of the Law Union’s mailing list; and didn’t carry a defamatory meaning.

Speaking about the case, Ellyn Law LLP founding partner Igor Ellyn notes that the nature and reach of the Internet and other forms of digital communication have complicated cases involving online defamation.

“The Internet has become so pervasive that many libel claims now involve a person who is alleging a defamatory statement on a web site, chat room, e-mail or an online newspaper,” says Ellyn.

“The defamatory statement could be something that was reprinted from another source. A defamatory statement can seriously affect a person’s reputation or career, especially if it appears on the Internet where it can be widely accessed in a rather short period of time.”

But Tony Wong, a partner at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, says that despite the circumstances surrounding the case, the outcome may be nothing new in libel and defamation law. “Damages on digital defamation and online defamation are definitely new territory,” says Wong.

“But notwithstanding new media, the results will likely be the same and the general principles of libel and defamation law may still apply.”

Still, online defamation cases highlight the need for Ontario courts to offer guidance, says Michael Smith of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

“It’s really hard to know how often digital defamation claims happen. I would not be at all surprised if they did occur fairly frequently but they often settle relatively quickly — many before a statement of claim is filed — so there are a lot that you do not hear anything about unless you are directly involved.

“Many victims of defamation just want the defamation to stop and for the offending articles to be removed, so many cases can be resolved quickly with the defendant retracting the statement and/or apologizing.”

The result, says Smith, is little guidance and an even greater hunger for direction among lawyers specializing in defamation and libel law. “

Those of us practising in this area are excited to read Internet defamation decisions precisely because there are so few of them and we’re looking for guidance as to how to handle the cases,” says Smith.

“Sixteen or 17 years after the Internet became publicly available, it’s still the Wild West and there are a lot of unanswered questions out there.”

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