TORONTO – Mayor Rob Ford’s threat to sue former staffers for telling police about activities they said included his consorting with suspected sex workers is unlikely to go anywhere, a prominent libel lawyer said Thursday.
Well-established case law offers protection to people speaking to investigators — but it’s not absolute, said Julian Porter.
“The employees would have had a qualified privilege in talking to the police provided they weren’t malicious and inventing it,” Porter told The Canadian Press.
“Now if the employees tell it to everybody else, that’s a different matter.”
At city hall, Ford named three former staffers: chief of staff Mark Towhey, special assistant Isaac Ransom, and spokesman George Christopolous.
He also named a waiter who, according to court documents, told police he suspected Ford had snorted cocaine while in a restaurant backroom.
All four had spoken to investigators as they probed the infamous video that apparently shows the mayor smoking crack cocaine, according to parts of search-warrant documents the court ordered released Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Ford said he was sickened by suggestions he had kept company with prostitutes and had been seen snorting cocaine.
“I can’t put up with it any more,” Ford said. “Litigation will be starting shortly.”
Porter said the only chance Ford had of a successful libel suit would be if he could show what was said was defamatory, and deliberately wrong.
“It’s possible that somebody is on a tear and they just invent something completely and go to the police,” the lawyer said.
“If it’s false, that’s a whole separate matter.”
The situation is similar to when an employer is asked for an employee reference. A truthful answer — even if ostensibly defamatory — would not draw legal sanction.
Porter said people have to be able to speak freely to investigators, but the caveat always remains that they don’t invent what they say.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they can never be mistaken in what they say, provided it’s an honest mistake.
“There is a duty for the person to speak to the police. There’s an interest in law for the police to hear it,” Porter said.
“Even though what they’ve said is on its face libellous, the law says this is an occasion of qualified privilege and hence, you are allowed, even if you get things wrong, to say it to police.”
Media reporting on the court documents also enjoy absolute immunity from a libel suit, provided the reporting is fair and accurate.
Ford could ask for revisions to any story, but that’s unlikely to happen unless the reporting is shown to be wrong, Porter said.