Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-born blogger based in Toronto, reported yesterday that he had been sued for defamation in a Canadian court. Derakhshan is a prominent figure in the history of the Iranian blogosphere. In 2001, he developed the technological solution that enabled Iranian bloggers to blog in Persian and published a widely-used set of instructions on "How to make a blog in Persian" using Blogger.com's free service. (For more information on Derakhshan and the Iranian blogosphere, see Wikipedia's entry on "Iranian blogs" and Meron Rapoport's article, "King of the Iranian Bloggers," on Haaretz.com.)
The lawsuit is just the latest chapter in a dispute that began this summer. In late July, counsel for Mohammed Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sent a letter to Derakhshan, his domain registrar (GoDaddy.com, Inc.), and his hosting service (Hosting Matters, Inc.). The letter complained of defamatory statements allegedly made in a number of Derakhshan's Persian-language posts in October 2005. According to the translation from Persian attached to the letter, these posts claimed that Khalaji was working for a right-wing think tank that openly supported the policy of "regime change" in Iran and was "giving ideas to the cruelest and dirtiest enemies of Iran and humanity." The letter also appears to take issue with a claim that Khalaji was "the only Iranian who has worked for both Khameni's office and Dick Cheney's, who intends to bomb Khalaji's former office building plus thousands of men, women and children living in the surrounding area." (Derakhshan disputes the accuracy of the translations and Khalaji's interpretation of his statements.)
Khalaji's letter indicated that GoDaddy and Hosting Matters (both U.S. companies) were "implicated in the activities conducted [on Derakhshan's blogs]," and that Khalaji's claim extended to these companies as publishers. It demanded that the recipients take down the offending posts, publish a letter of "contrition, apology, and retraction," and pay Khalaji $10,000. After a lengthy back-and-forth between Derakhshan and Hosting Matters, the hosting service terminated Derakhshan's accounts, and he moved his blogs to another hosting service. The blogs went back up after a few days, apparently with the disputed posts still in place.
Khalaji sued Derakhshan in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on October 19. It does not look like Khalaji pursued further action against Hosting Matters or GoDaddy. This is somewhat surprising given that Derakhshan probably doesn't have the $2,000,000 in requested damages and Canadian law does not have an analog of CDA 230 (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)), which insulates service providers in the United States from liability for the statements of "another information content provider." But it's a truism by now that lawsuits of this kind are motivated more by a desire for personal vindication than for money.
This is a fascinating and difficult case because the statements fall into a grey area between spirited political argument and personal attack. It seems to me that most of the complained of statements are either opinion or hyperbole, and a reasonable reader likely would understand them to be so. But courts, at least courts in the United States, examine statements of opinion to determine if they are based on or presume underlying facts. If they do, they can still be actionable. We'd love insight from our readers on how Canadian libel law might change the analysis.