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Vigna v. Levant: Serenity, Nausea, and Red Underpants

What goes on at a defamation trial? Read on and I'll tell you, for I bore witness to the spectacle of the ages.

Terrence Watson - June 25, 2010

There were red underpants. I have witnesses.

The underpants come at the end of the story, around 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The beginning goes more like this:

“I do think we have a property right in our reputations,” said Ezra Levant to a small group of us outside courtroom 21, Elgin St., Ottawa as we waited for the trial to resume.

"I know some libertarians disagree, but your reputation is very much like your property. You can sell it. Tiger Woods ..." It was almost time for the main event, and we were psyching each other up. Strangely nervous, I can't even recall Ezra's Tiger Woods joke (you can probably fill in the blanks yourself.)

The courtroom had been on the third floor back in March when the trial started. I'd only been able to attend a few of the sessions. A summary of that time would be a snoozefest, and not just because of an absence of visible underpants, red or otherwise.

Giacomo Vigna v. Ezra Levant had begun with opening statements, hours and hours of testimony from Monsieur Vigna, all of it in French, and a short cross-examination from Levant's lawyer, Christopher Ashby, a tall, thin, British man. Ashby reminds me of Christopher Lee, the English actor who played Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That's a compliment, I assure you.

Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to attend Vigna's cross-examination. The hours and hours of testimony left me feeling nauseous. You might say it undermined my serenity. Plus, I had other things to do on that day.

Giacomo Vigna is suing Ezra Levant for defamation. I'd love to explain the vast panoply of ways Vigna alleges he was defamed, but I'm not interested in getting sued myself. If you're reading this, you probably already know about the allegations, and how a good chunk of them involve that “strange and beautiful” word: serenity. If you need more, read Vigna's notice of libel here.

In my opinion -- and I use the following term in the technical, philosophical sense -- most of the allegations fall into the category of bullshit. I mean, really, Mr. Vigna, have you even seen My Cousin Vinnie? Joe Pesci's titular character is not a bad guy, or even particularly dumb. And he even kind of looks like you...

All of this is just to set the stage, of course. I'm not interested in narrating a complex series of legal arguments, but I do want to give a sense of what went on during these last two days of proceedings, especially to speech warriors and our detractors. So here is a quick summary, gathered from what I witnessed at the trial:

Vigna alleges that Ezra called him a liar; that Ezra implied he was a “tyrant” who sent “hired goons” to harass his parents; that Ezra mocked him by giving him the nickname “Serenity Now”; that Ezra mocked him by comparing him to Joe Pesci's character in My Cousin Vinnie; that Ezra accused him of violating the lawyer's code of conduct; and that Ezra accused him of being a neo-Nazi, or at least signing up. I think that about covers it.

There are, according to the summation of Mr. Ashby, five ways to defend yourself from a libel complaint: truth, qualified privilege, fair comment, responsible communication (that's the new one), and abuse of process. This last, while it didn't receive a lot of attention, seems to involve defending yourself from a lawsuit by demonstrating that your accuser is using the lawsuit as an instrument in a vendetta against you.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Ashby argued that even the comments that might conceivably be defamatory were protected by one or more of these defenses. Vigna's cross-examination of Ezra should have involved an attempt to show that the conditions for using these defenses were not met. There was some of that -- the attempt, anyway -- but it is hard for me to square much of what Vigna asked with this goal.

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