Ross v. Beutel

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Law 12 Tort Law Ms. Ripley

Ross v. Beutel, [2001] N.B.C.A. 62 (Law in Action, Blair, p.407)
BACKGROUND In 1993, the New Brunswick Teachers' Association held workshops on Jewish history and culture. The Association invited the political cartoonist Josh Beutel to make a presentation. In his presentation, called "An Editorial Cartoonist Confronts Holocaust Issues," Beutel displayed political car­toons dealing with racism and stereotypes. He also discussed freedom of the press versus hate literature. A number of Beutel's cartoons depicted Malcolm Ross, a former teacher in New Brunswick who was known for his anti-Semitic and racist opinions. Ross's books and articles alleged that an international Jewish con­spiracy existed to take over the Christian world. Because of his publications, Ross was removed from his teaching position, al­though he remained a member of the Association.

Ross attended Beutel's presentation. One cartoon Beutel showed was of Ross holding two of his books. To the left of Ross was the name "Goebbels," a German Nazi leader who was Hitler's minister of propaganda. The setting of the cartoon was a concentration camp showing a group of German soldiers with someone who looked like Hitler. The word Conspiracy was prominently displayed, and the caption asked, "What's the dif­ference between the views of ... Josef Goebbels and Malcolm Ross?" Beutel also read a passage from one of Ross's books about the theory of a Jewish conspiracy. Ross sued Beutel for defamation.

LEGAL QUESTION Was Beutel's cartoon fair comment about Ross?


DECISION The Court of Queen's Bench of New Brunswick found that Beutel had defamed Ross in the cartoon. The judge found that a reasonable listener and viewer of the commentary and cartoon would regard Ross as a Nazi who advocated the extermination of the Jewish people. Ross was award­ed $7500 in damages. Beutel ap­pealed the decision.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal accepted Beutel's defence of fair comment and allowed the appeal. The Court of Appeals found that Beutel's cartoon was based on his opinion that Ross and Goebbels had similar beliefs about a Jewish conspiracy and that a reasonable person would not take the cartoon to mean that Ross was a Nazi who advocated the extermination of Jewish peo­ple. While the cartoon was still defamatory, it was a fair comment in that Beutel's opinion was hon­est, not malicious. According to the Court, "... [cartoons] by their very nature, contain statements of opinion rather than statements of fact. Relying, as they do, on the devices of alle­gory, caricature and analogy, cartoons contain sub­jective expressions of opinion."
LEGAL SIGNIFICANCE This decision became a precedent for subsequent defamation cases involving cartoon depiction.

1. In the defence of fair comment, does the comment have to be true? Explain.

2. The "right of fair comment is one of the essential elements which go to make up our freedom of speech." Explain the meaning of this statement. How would you relate it to this case?

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