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Judge awards owner of Middle Eastern restaurant chain $2.5M for suffering 'hate speech at its worst'
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, May 13, 2019 10:01PM EDT
A self-styled online media personality whose websites frequently air anti-Muslim content has been ordered to pay the owner of a prominent Middle Eastern restaurant chain millions of dollars after publicly accusing him of funding terrorism.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Jane Ferguson ordered Kevin J. Johnston to pay a total of $2.5 million in damages for defamation to Mohamad Fakih, the owner and founder of Paramount Fine Foods.
Johnston, who operated websites including FreedomReport.ca and recently came in second place in Mississauga's mayoral race, posted multiple videos attacking Fakih.
In the videos, shot in 2017, Johnston made a series of incendiary statements including a claim Fakih was an "economic terrorist" with backing from the Pakistani spy agency.
He also alleged restaurant policy barred staff from admitting anyone who wasn't a "jihadist."
Ferguson says Johnston's words amounted to hate speech that called for particularly strong condemnation from the court.
"In this fractious 21st century -- where social media and the internet now allow some of the darkest forces in our society to achieve attention -- (issues raised by the case) are numerous and profound, and their impact extends well beyond the borders of this country," she wrote in her decision released Monday.
"Motivated by ignorance and a reckless regard for acceptable norms, the Johnston defendants' behaviour reflects a contempt for Canada's judicial process, an abuse of the very freedoms this country affords them and a loathsome example of hate speech at its worst."
Johnston did not respond to a request for reaction to Ferguson's ruling, and the paralegal who represented him during the defamation suit could not be reached for comment.
According to Ferguson's decision, Johnston and another man shot the video footage on July 20, 2017, while a fundraiser for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was taking place at Paramount's flagship location in Mississauga.
Ferguson said the men repeatedly tried to disrupt the event and made a number of defamatory statements about the restaurant and Fakih, who founded Paramount in 2007 and has seen it expand to roughly 40 locations across Canada.
The footage yielded at least eight event videos that contained a number of what Ferguson deemed to be defamatory statements.
The videos also featured Paramount's facade and logo and a photograph of Fakih altered to present him with blood on his hands, Ferguson wrote.
When served with notice of the defamation suit, Ferguson contends Johnston doubled down on his claims in a series of new videos in which he described Fakih as a "radical Muslim" who "hates white people."
Tensions escalated in April 2018, she wrote, when Johnston allegedly approached Fakih while he was at a Mississauga shopping mall with his children aged between 13 and four.
The resulting encounter, briefly posted to Johnston's online platforms, left Fakih's youngest child waking in the middle of the night asking about "the scary man who hates his dad," Ferguson said in her decision.
The other man who appeared in Johnston's videos and who was originally named in the defamation suit saw the action against him dismissed after he issued an "unqualified apology" for his words and actions.
In contrast, Ferguson alleged Johnston repeatedly failed to co-operate with the court process and cast public aspersions on both the case and the judge overseeing it.
At one point, her decision said he went so far as to accuse Fakih of launching the suit in league with the woman who ultimately defeated him during Mississauga's 2018 mayoral race. While the incumbent was re-elected with 76 per cent of the vote, city election results show Johnston took 13.5 per cent of ballots cast and placed second in the contest.
Ferguson awarded Fakih damages based on his standing in the community, the seriousness of the defamatory statements, the extent of their publication, the lack of an apology from Johnston and the defendant's conduct.
She accepted Fakih's contention that both his business interests and personal reputation were impacted by Johnston's baseless claims.
"The serious damage to the plaintiffs' reputations from the Johnston defendants' repeated and widely disseminated false statements ... may never be able to be undone," she wrote. "As recognized by the Court of Appeal, given the 'extraordinary capacity' of the internet to replicate defamatory statements 'almost endlessly,' the truth rarely catches up with a lie."
In a statement, Fakih said Ferguson's ruling is a triumph over racism and hate speech.
"When someone falsely calls you a 'terrorist' simply because you are a Muslim, that is Islamophobia," he said. "This judgment sends a clear message that such Islamophobic comments are wrong and defamatory. I feel vindicated. This decision is an important step towards demonstrating that those who are spewing hate online are going to have to pay."