January 2017

Defamatory law: Major victory for Djemila Benhabib and the right to freedom of expression

Mtre. Marc-André Nadon and Mtre. Amélie Dupras of PFD's Litigation group won an important defamation case with the dismissal of an action brought by a private Muslim school against writer, author, journalist and feminist activist Djemila Benhabib for comments she made during a radio interview with Benoît Dutrizac on 98,5 FM.  

On February 8, 2012, our client, Djemila Benhabib, was invited to take part in the public affairs radio show to discuss a blog entry she published the day before that touched upon the teaching methods used by the plaintiff, Muslim Schools of Montréal (MSM). The government-funded private Muslim school claimed that Ms. Benhabib undermined its reputation when she qualified the organization's teaching methods and practices as misogynistic, sexist and discriminatory and drew a parallel with indoctrination methods used in Afghan military training camps.

On December 13, 2016, in a lengthy judgement, the Honourable Carole Hallée of the Superior Court of Québec dismissed MSM's claim. She affirmed that not only was Ms. Benhabib not guilty of any wrongdoing in making the statements but MSM failed to demonstrate that the comments were defamatory and caused harm to the organization.

In its analysis, the Court recognized the importance of freedom of expression in Québec in the context of debates on matters of public interest, such as religion, the rights of women and children, teaching methods and the wearing of a headscarf by young girls, as in this particular case.

Justice Hallée also acknowledged that should freedom of expression not be protected in the context of debates on matters of public interest, society would suffer serious harm in that several debates would not be taken forward and matters would not be addressed until there is no discussion at all.

As there was no legal precedent in Québec or Canada, the ruling is likely to constitute a key instance for freedom of expression in the context of a public debate on religion and religious schools.

Click here to read Justice Hallée's ruling (in French).