West Vancouver billionaire Frank Giustra has been given the go-ahead to sue Twitter in a B.C. courtroom over the social media giant’s publication of a series of tweets tying him to baseless conspiracy theories involving pedophile rings and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
In a ruling released Thursday, Justice Elliott Myers found that Giustra’s history and presence in British Columbia, combined with the possibility the tweets may have been seen by as many as 500,000 B.C. Twitter users, meant a B.C. court should have jurisdiction over the case.
It’s a victory not only for Giustra — whose philanthropic activities have earned him membership in both the Orders of Canada and B.C. — but for Canadian plaintiffs trying to hold U.S.-based internet platforms responsible for border-crossing content.
‘I believe that words do matter’
In a statement, Giustra said he was looking forward to pursuing the case in the province where he built his reputation as the founder of Lionsgate Entertainment.
“I hope this lawsuit will help raise public awareness of the real harm to society if social media platforms are not held responsible for the content posted and published on their sites,” Giustra said.
“I believe that words do matter, and recent events have demonstrated that hate speech can incite violence with deadly consequences.”
Giustra filed the defamation lawsuit in April 2019, seeking an order to force Twitter to remove tweets he claimed painted him as “corrupt” and “criminal.”
He claimed he was targeted by a group who vilified him “for political purposes” in relation to the 2016 U.S. election and his work in support of the Clinton Foundation.
The online attacks allegedly included death threats and links to “pizzagate” — a “false, discredited and malicious conspiracy theory in which [Giustra] was labelled as a ‘pedophile,'” the claim stated.
Twitter has not filed a response to Giustra’s claim itself — applying instead to have the case tossed because of jurisdiction.
The California-based company said it does not do business in B.C. and that Giustra was only relying on his B.C. roots to file the case in Canada because it would be a non-starter in the U.S., where the First Amendment protects free speech.
The company claimed he would have been mostly affected in the U.S. where he spends much of his time, owns extensive property and has substantial interests in the entertainment industry — meaning B.C. is only tangentially connected to the matter.
In essence, Myers said, Twitter claimed it was only a platform for others to post comment, and couldn’t be expected to face defamation cases every place people felt aggrieved.
The judge said the case presented some difficult — if timely — questions.
“This case illustrates the jurisdictional difficulties with internet defamation where the publication of the defamatory comments takes place in multiple countries where the plaintiff has a reputation to protect,” Myers wrote.
“The presumption is that a defendant should be sued in only one jurisdiction for an alleged wrong, but that is not a simple goal to achieve fairly for internet defamation.”
‘Strong ties to the province’
Myers found Giustra’s connection to B.C. undeniable.
“There can be no dispute that Mr. Giustra has a significant reputation in British Columbia. He also has strong ties to the province,” he wrote.
“The fact that he has a reputation in or connections to other jurisdictions does not detract from that.”
The judge said Giustra had also done what he needed to do to show his reputation in B.C. might have been affected.
“I do not agree with Twitter who argues that of all places in the world, the Plaintiff’s reputation has not been harmed in B.C.,” Myers wrote.
In its application, Twitter drew on a 2018 Supreme Court of Canada judgment in which a Canadian billionaire with substantial interests in Israel was denied his bid to sue an Israeli newspaper in Ontario over an article that appeared online.
In that case, the court ruled that Israel would be the more appropriate place to hold a trial because the billionaire was better known there, he hadn’t limited his suit to damages suffered in Canada and most of the witnesses would also be in Israel.
But Myers found that many of the tweets referred to B.C. and went beyond the kind of business articles that were at the heart of the Supreme Court of Canada case.
“Here the tweets refer to Mr. Giustra’s personal characteristics alleging, for example, pedophilia,” Myers wrote.
Despite the lawsuit, Giustra maintains a Twitter account.
The court filings include a letter he wrote to Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey in April 2018, asking him to make his case a priority.
“As Twitter’s CEO, I ask that you now investigate the source of these past and ongoing attacks against me — whether they are the result of individuals, a group, bots, or a combination of all three,” Giustra wrote.
“I do not want to cancel my Twitter account — that would be a victory of those who are turning this incredible communication tool into a conduit for slander and hate.”