Be Careful What you Tweet: Ontario Superior Court Orders Contempt Sentence for Failing to Fix Defamatory Statements
In November 2021, Ms. Hiller commenced a defamatory online campaign on Twitter against Ms. Post, a professor at Carleton University. Ms. Post attempted to stop Ms. Hiller's derogatory and misleading remarks. Not only did Ms. Hiller refuse, but she made it clear that she would continue to defame Ms. Post until she was economically spent. Ms. Post had no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Hiller.
On June 24, 2022, in Post v Hiller, 2022 ONSC 3793, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued a default judgment of $85,000.00 against Ms. Hiller for defamation and ordered Ms. Hiller to remove all content about Ms. Post from her social media account, to permanently refrain from communicating any further false or derogatory statements about Ms. Post, and to issue a retraction stating that her online statements about Ms. Post were false. On the same day the decision was issued, Hiller doubled down and tweeted ten defamatory statements about Ms. Post. When she failed to comply with the order, Ms. Post filed a motion for contempt. In Post v Hiller, 2022 ONSC 5253, the Court found Ms. Hiller in contempt for violating the three mandatory orders in the judgement.
Sentencing for Civil Contempt
As a result of the contempt findings, in Post v Hiller, 2022 ONSC 6005, the Ontario Superior Court ordered Ms. Hiller to serve a 75-day order akin to a conditional sentence to be served in the community under house arrest, followed by a nine-month order akin to a probation order with 120 hours of community service. The court considered the circumstances of Ms. Hillier, the fact that she had apologized and purged her contempt at the last available moment, and the fact that she did not have the means to pay the damage award.
Rule 60.11(5) of the Rules of Civil Procedure allows the Court to sanction a contemnor to be committed to jail or subject to any other sanction available for a criminal offence. For criminal contempt, the sentence is designed to punish the offender whereas with civil contempt, the court’s focus is on obtaining compliance as to enforce the rights of a private party, however deterring parties from disobeying court orders is an important consideration. In this case, although Ms. Hiller ultimately purged the contempt by retracting all defamatory statements and issued an apology, the Court stated that it was still entitled and required to sentence for contempt to prevent flagrant disobedience of court orders or to delay purging until just prior to the sentencing.
In the modern world of social media, where a person's words can be disseminated almost instantly to thousands of people, and where online statements have a long shelf life and are not easily erased once they are in circulation, false and defamatory statements can have very real and serious consequences for others. Court orders that attempt to control the dissemination of false and defamatory statements in order to minimize harm to individuals must be taken seriously. For this reason, the principles of denunciation and specific and general deterrence remain the paramount principles to be considered in sentencing for civil contempt.
The court's decision in Post is important because it highlights the importance of complying with court orders. In a society where many use social media to share various thoughts and ideas, it remains important to ensure that these comments are not defamatory. If an order is issued for defamation, it should not be taken lightly. As seen in Post, a blatant violation of the order can have serious consequences.
If you, or your business are suffering from online defamation, this ruling provides guidance that that the courts are prepared to act should the offending party be found guilty of defamation and fail to take the mandated corrective measures.
For more information, please contact Shawn O'Connor. Case summary prepared by Valérie Tremblay, Student-at-Law.