What are the limits of what can be said on social media about a candidate in an election? The question was answered in Laprise c. Simard, 2022 QCCS 1384, a recent decision by Justice Claude Bouchard of the Superior Court.
The plaintiff is the candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada in the riding of Beauport–Côte-de-Beaupré–Île d’Orléans–Charlevoix in the last federal election of September 20, 2021.
The night before the vote, the plaintiff, who is the ex spouse of the plaintiff’s husband and who has two children with this man, puts up a post on her Facebook page in which she essentially states that the plaintiff is using the children to promote her candidacy for the election.
The defendant also publishes statements to the effect that the plaintiff has intimidated her and had been vile to her.
The defendant’s posts have been seen by hundreds of people. Some of them did not hesitate to make disparaging comments about the plaintiff, wishing her to be defeated, or describing her alleged behavior as “disgusting” [“dégueulasse”, par 22].
The plaintiff categorically denies the defendant’s allegations. Some of the posts are withdrawn the very day they appeared on Facebook. A letter of demand is sent by the plaintiff and the remaining posts are deleted by the defendant.
According to the Court, the defendant’s statements are misleading. The advertisements related to the plaintiff’s campaign accurately describe her as the “stepmother” of twins [par 23]. Furthermore, the moment selected by the defendant reveals her real intentions, which are to attack the plaintiff’s image and induce people not to support her nor to vote for her.
Thus, publishing misleading statements exceeds the limits of freedom of expression, therefore becoming defamation. The Court awards $5,000 as compensatory damages, and $1,000 as punitive damages.
Citizens who run for office enter what is commonly referred to as the political arena. They must accept that personal elements of their lives may be the subject of public discussions or commentary. Such are the risks of the job.
However, the political arena is not a free for all. Candidates to elections remain protected by section 4 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Civil Code of Québec, mainly articles 3 and 35. They have among other rights the right to the protection of their dignity their honor and their reputation.
The Supreme Court of Canada stated in 1704604 Ontario Ltd. c. Pointes Protection Association, 2020 SCC 22, that even while freedom of speech is important as a basis of a pluralist democracy, it does not authorize slandering someone else.
These statements are even more relevant in the context of social media.
As this decision illustrates, inappropriate behaviour can have severe consequences before the courts.