On September 28, 2012, Madam Justice Adair dismissed an action in defamation by Mainstream Canada against the defendant Don Staniford carrying on business as The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture.
The plaintiff, Mainstream, is the second largest producer of farmed salmon in British Columbia. On January 31, 2011, the defendant Don Staniford, an environmental activist, launched a public campaign attacking the salmon farming industry. The campaign was centred on a press release prepared by Staniford which included four mock cigarette packages bearing warnings such as “Salmon Farming Kills,” and “Salmon Farming Seriously Damages Health.” This press release was sent to media outlets and posted on a website, where more examples of mock cigarette packages were displayed bearing similar messages.
Mainstream alleged that the press release was targeted at them and that it attempted to associate Mainstream, its business, and the consumption of farmed salmon with tobacco companies, tobacco products, and the detrimental health consequences of tobacco use. Staniford defended the action, and argued that the statements were a fair comment or opinion on matters of public interest. Mainstream countered by arguing that the defence of fair comment was defeated by Staniford’s malice when he made the statements.
The Court concluded that Mainstream had proved the essential elements of defamation. First, the statements in question were defamatory since they stated that salmon-farming companies killed, sold products that were toxic, poisonous and harmful to human health, and were dishonest by association with big tobacco companies, who were held in low repute in the community. Second, the statements referred specifically to Mainstream, given that Staniford had issued the press release in Vancouver, had a history of targeting Mainstream specifically and had mentioned Mainstream by name in a blog posting made the day after the press release. Third, Staniford did not dispute that the statements had been published.
The Court accepted Staniford’s fair comment defence and held that although the statements contained assertions of fact, a reasonable reader would conclude that they were value judgments based on facts. The Court further held that Mr. Staniford honestly expressed his opinions and that they were therefore fair comment.
On the issue of malice, the Court held that Staniford was contemptuous and hostile toward Mainstream and that his opinions were motivated in part by malice. However, the Court rejected the contention that malice was the dominant motivation behind the statements due to Staniford’s sincere desire to end aquaculture, which it concluded was the dominant motivation behind his statements. Finally, the Court noted that to defeat the defence of fair comment in the circumstances was impossible given that Staniford was doing the very thing that fair comment was designed to protect – the interest of free speech.
To view the Reasons for Judgment in this case, click here.
Mr. McKnight is a group leader of Alexander Holburn Beaudin + Lang LLP’s Defamation + Publication Risk Management Practice Area. For a link to Mr. McKnight’s Professional Bio please click here.