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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: You’d better be able to prove that

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Freedom of speech means you’re free to say whatever you want. Go for it. Fill your boots. Lay it all out there.

But it doesn’t mean you’re immediately free from the consequences of your words.

You might lose your job because of your views; you might damage your own chances of getting elected. You might lose friends or find yourself getting the cold shoulder at public events.

For me, those consequences are always close at hand. One of the problems of working in the media is that, if you don’t report things accurately and truthfully, if you deliberately mislead, you put yourself and your employer at financial risk.

Employers, understandably, don’t like that. It’s why newspapers sometimes get into arguments with people who want to write libelous letters to the editor. The papers say, “Not on our newsprint.” The letter-writer says, “What about my freedom of speech?”, and the papers reply, “Say it to your heart’s content. That’s your right. But not in our pages; we’re not carrying your legal liability for you.”

People sometimes forget that we can’t report things we can’t prove.

And at the same time, they’re willing to give great credit to views and sites on the internet that don’t operate with the same constraints.

Truth is, some sites with little reach operate on the internet under the radar. If someone’s aggrieved by their content, taking them on just garners more attention for a site that might otherwise be practically invisible.

People sometimes forget that we can’t report things we can’t prove.

Sometimes, it’s just not worth anyone’s while to go after patently false websites, simply because of the hassle and expense. (And also because of the peculiarities of defence you might see, like Alex Jones of Infowars in the United States arguing he can’t be sued for making false statements because he’s an entertainer, and doesn’t have to use facts. As his lawyer argued in 2017, “He’s playing a character. … He is a performance artist.”)

But not this week.

No, this week showed just what kind of hammer you might be playing with if you decide to take to the web with your theories and allegations, without having the ability to actually prove what you’re saying.

In Ontario, a judge has ordered an anti-Muslim activist, Kevin J. Johnston, to pay $2.5 million in damages to a restaurateur, Mohamad Fakih, who Johnston had attacked in online videos.

Justice Jane Ferguson of the Ontario Superior Court wrote in her verdict that the case was part of “this fractious 21st century — where social media and the internet allow some of the darkest forces in our society to achieve attention.”

In awarding damages, she said Johnston’s actions were, “a loathsome example of hate speech at its worst, targeting people solely because of their religion. Left unchallenged, it poisons the integrity of our democracy.”

Johnston at one point tried to defend comments like, “you have to be a jihadist or have raped someone else’s wife as a condition of entry to the restaurant,” as being political satire.

The judge wasn’t buying it.

The award was one of the highest defamation awards in Canadian history, in part because Fakih could show the attacks played a role in the loss of a $2.6-million business deal.

The popular saying may be “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” — but if you’re the one using the words and you can’t back them up with proof, you might find yourself being crushed financially by the backlash from your own comments.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Recent columns by this author

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Profiting from misery

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Who’s monitoring the weapons of mass propaganda?

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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