I love hockey. There are very few sports that are as crazy, violent, and fun to watch. There is nothing more fun than watching the Flyers beat down the Rangers or the Devils. You either get hockey, or you don’t.
Which is why hockey fans are some of the most passionate fans in the world.
And yeah, sometimes I get angry with the management and the players. We call for people to be fired, players to be benched, and regime changes.
Even though we can be a little mean to our sports franchises, especially here in Philadelphia, the coaches and the players make a significant amount of money – enough to console their hurt feelings, I would imagine.
Last night I was very surprised to learn that the Maple Leaf’s former General Manager, Brian Burke, filed a lawsuit against several anonymous internet commenters who made anoymous comments about him on hockey message boards.
According to the “Notice of Civil Claim“, an anonymous internet commenter falsely inferred that Burke had an extra-marital affair with Hazel Mae and may have fathered her child. In my opinion, the statement is very obviously parody and not even the stupidest person in the world could actually believe it, especially when you take into account who said it, the hyperbolic language, and the fact it was made on a hockey message board. (quoting the comment verbatim is messing up the formatting of my blog post. But you can click and read it yourself. Thanks, WordPress.)
The culture of Internet communications, as distinct from that of print media such as newspapers and magazines, has been characterized as encouraging a “freewheeling, anything-goes writing style … In determining whether a plaintiff’s complaint includes a published ‘false and defamatory statement concerning another,’ commentators have argued that the defamatory import of the communication must be viewed in light of the fact that bulletin boards and chat rooms ‘are often the repository of a wide range of casual, emotive, and imprecise speech,’ Sandals Resorts Int’l, Ltd. v. Google, Inc., 27 Misc. 3d 1207(A), 2010 WL 1428266 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co. 2010)
In English, that means we have enough faith in society that people don’t believe every stupid thing they read on an internet forum or in a chatroom. Compared to what they read in say, the New York Times.
Canadian defamation law is different than American defamation law, though. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to follow the “actual malice” requirement in NY Times. v. Sullivan in the leading Canadian case: Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto,  2 S.C.R. 1130 (SCC). Meaning public figures, like Brian Burke, can file lawsuits against individuals in Canada under the same standard of a private citizen.
Legal issues aside, here is the big question – what is Brian Burke trying to achieve by suing NHL fans? According to Burke’s lawyer, Peter Gall of Heenan Blaikie LLP, “[a] lot of people think that they can with impunity say whatever outrageous things on the Internet and nobody’s ever going to be able to find them or hold them accountable. Brian is going to hold them accountable.”
The reason General Managers of hockey teams make a lot of money is because NHL fans like me and this anonymous commenter on the internet pay big bucks to watch the games, buy the jerseys, and subscribe to the expensive TV packages. People comment about the NHL on message boards because they love the sport. Part of that commentary is inevitably going to be criticisms of the coaches, the players, and the management. We comment because we care.
This type of lawsuit sets a chilling atmosphere for sports fans who comment, often stupidly, online. Is that what the NHL really wants? What’s next – coaches, players, and management suing hockey fans for defamation because they are critical, or say things that hurt their feelings? Isn’t hockey a contact sport?
And do you think any NHL team is going to want to hire a General Manager who sues NHL fans – the same fans who put money in the league’s pocket? If my Philadelphia Flyers did that, I would boycott the team and refrain from commenting about them. I bet other fans would do the same. The people who comment about the NHL are the same people putting money in the league’s pocket – which goes to the players, management, and guys like Brian Burke.
So, I hope Brian Burke has been told what the Streisand Effect is. Because I have a feeling Mr. Burke is goingto learn about it very quickly. While I doubt any of the internet commenters damaged his career or reputation, this lawsuit just might.
And just because: