Bieber and Beachclub: What is defamation in the social media era?

Author:Gordon, Matt
 
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On May 16, 2016, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News reported that Stratford-born pop star Justin Bieber had been sued in Montreal by event promoter Team Productions for $650,000 CDN for defamation.

Bieber's offending comment was a tweet on August 22, 2015, which would have been the day of a show he cancelled at Montreal nightclub called Beachclub. It read, "Montreal due to the promoter of today's event breaking his contract and lying I will not be able to attend today's event". Bieber was due $250,000 upon signing the agreement to play the concert, and an additional $175,000 five days before the event. Team Productions cited a hit to its reputation and an associated loss of revenue. It also claimed Bieber failed to promote the event on social media as he promised.

Beyond the wow factor of having a celebrity sued for that much money over a cancelled show, this case demonstrates how easy it is for social media use to turn into defamation.

According to the Supreme Court of Canada in Grant v Torstar, a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit has to prove three points.

  1. First, the words in question diminish the plaintiff's reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person.

  2. Second, the words in fact refer to the plaintiff.

  3. Third, the words have to be "published, meaning that they were communicated to at least one person other than the plaintiff".

"Communicated" is intentionally open-ended. Defamation can be verbal, written, or otherwise expressed. It also does not have to be intentional, as the Court in Grant states: "The plaintiff is not required to show that the defendant intended to do harm, or even that the defendant was careless."

The plaintiff does not have to show monetary or other damages beyond harm to reputation. The Supreme Court of Canada in Editions Ecosociete Inc v Banro Corp echoed the lower court's ruling that "the vindication of the plaintiff's reputation was just as important as any monetary award that might be obtained". It is harm to reputation, not financial harm, that Team Productions needs to prove. Although proving financial loss could help the Team Productions case, only the financial loss that is also evidence of loss of reputation matters here.

Two 2016 decisions in different provinces have discussed Twitter as a forum for defamation. In Sciquest v Hansen et al, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined that defamation "occurs when [defamatory] material is read or downloaded by a third party. A single...

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