By Stephen Vance, Editor
My poor computer was practically smoking today with the sudden burst of email that arrived after an article in the Sun Times informed readers that the municipality has backed off on its pledge to name the anonymous blogger who authored a website that was highly critical of Meaford Mayor Francis Richardson and some members of staff during the recent municipal election campaign.
Many of the comments from readers suggested that residents should band together and demand that the municipality reveal the name of the blogger now that they have confirmed the identity.
I would suggest that everyone needs to take a deep breath, collect their thoughts, and realize that demanding that the identity of the anonymous blogger be revealed is fighting the wrong fight.
Who authored the blog is really fairly irrelevant, and I suspect that had the municipality (through their own admission) not bungled this issue from the beginning by rushing to accuse an innocent resident of this municipality, there would be little if any interest in who the blogger is.
Lawyers for the municipality have advised them not to release the name of the individual and that is probably a wise decision given the circumstances.
I agree that there should be some hard questions asked of the municipality, but the name of the blogger isn’t one of them.
Here is what should be asked:
Why did the lawyer hired by the municipality to look into the anonymous blogger issue not advise the municipality that under Canadian law municipalities are not allowed to sue an individual for defamation? When petitioning the courts to issue an order for Google to provide information that could identify the blogger, it was stated by the lawyer for the municipality that the information would be used in building a defamation lawsuit.
Had municipal management and council been advised from the outset that they would not be able to file such a lawsuit, perhaps they would have dropped the entire issue before spending thousands of dollars to hunt down the blogger’s identity.
This isn’t the fault of the municipality, it is the fault of the legal advice they were being given- or rather weren’t given.
Why did the lawyer hired by the municipality pen a harshly worded letter to mayoral candidate Jim McPherson in the middle of an election campaign accusing one of his campaign workers of being the author of the blog and demanding that McPherson contact a long list of media outlets to publicly identify this campaign worker as the blog author and to fire them from his campaign team lest legal action commence immediately?
McPherson was given less than 24 hours to meet the demands in the letter, yet the evidence that the lawyer claimed ‘proved’ the identity of the blog author (a name that appeared in the by-line on the blog posts) could have been refuted by an average high school student.
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of blogging would have known that anyone can attribute any blog post to any name they so choose, yet the lawyer who was touted as an expert in these matters used this ‘evidence’ as a reason to demand that a resident and taxpayer of this municipality be publicly fired and accused of authoring the blog.
If council and staff determined that such a letter should have been issued, it should have been issued to the person being accused, not to the candidate for which the person was assumed to have been aligned. The fact that the letter was issued to the candidate simply invites accusations of a political motivation.
If you were being accused of some wrongdoing would you expect that a letter would be given to your boss, your neighbour, or to you directly?
After realizing that they had botched the situation, council issued a letter of apology to the accused, and they have stated publicly that the person initially accused was not involved in the blog at all. In that letter council apologized that the resident’s name had become public, yet the letter from the lawyer to McPherson had demanded that the person’s name become public in less than 24 hours from the time McPherson was handed the letter..
So much for innocent until proven guilty.
Was anyone reprimanded for allowing a mayoral candidate and a completely innocent resident of this municipality to be bullied in such a fashion? Was anyone asked why there was a failure to first explore if the ‘evidence’ used to make the accusation was valid and bullet-proof?
Was the campaign of mayoral candidate McPherson adversely affected as a result of this rush to accuse an innocent person? We will never know.
Let’s face it, if a bank was held up by someone wearing mask and a shirt that said “My name is Joe Smith”, would the police arrest Joe Smith based on that evidence alone? Or would they investigate the possibility that anyone could wear a shirt with any name they wanted, which would mean that before jumping the gun and making an arrest, perhaps some additional evidence would be required?
If indeed a police force had arrested an innocent individual on such flimsy evidence without gathering any additional evidence, or seeking out any other suspects, you can bet that somebody would have received a reprimand, a suspension, or worse.
It might sound like a silly scenario, but it is essentially what happened in this case.
A Meaford resident was accused because a blog that boasted of the anonymity of its author carried that person’s name in the by-line of blog posts That very blog site had during its short life carried a different by-line name of “Bill Smith”, and at other times no by-line name at all.
Common sense would tell most of us that anyone who went to the time and trouble to author a vitriolic and anonymous blog would not put their own name anywhere on the site.
To demand now that the municipality release the name which they have confirmed through information received from Google and Bell is futile because as has been stated by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the municipality should not be in possession of the name to begin with since they had no grounds to obtain the name, and they now know full well that if they do release the name of the anonymous blogger, they risk being slapped with a lawsuit for revealing information that they shouldn’t even have.
If private individuals who felt they had been defamed by the blog had gone through the court process themselves to obtain that information, it would be a completely different story because the individuals would be able to use that information to file their own lawsuit if they felt they had a case.
There is no question that the content of the blog site in question was often nasty. And nobody, including municipal staff should ever be subjected to the kinds of comments and unsubstantiated accusations that were posted on that site. But neither should a taxpaying resident of our community be threatened with public accusation and humiliation without a full and proper investigation being conducted beforehand.
Instead of demanding that the municipality release the name of the anonymous blogger, these are the questions that should be asked by residents and taxpayers.
But it shouldn’t just be residents asking these questions. All members of council should be asking these questions as any one of them could easily have found themselves or their campaigns targeted in a similar fashion had the blogger simply chosen to use a different name.
Obviously there are many that would like to see some consequences for the person behind the anonymous blog. Perhaps justice could be realized if the police were asked to investigate the situation, and consider the fact that the person who created and contributed to the blog site used the name of an innocent person which one can only assume was done to cause blame to be cast upon someone other than the true author.