by Baila Lazarus, Jewish Western Bulletin, May 29, 1998, Sivan 5758
A woman described by a B.C. judge as a "Missionary for anti-Semitism and pro-white racism" has won a court battle in a defamation suit resulting from a controversial television broadcast.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Dermod Owen-Flood ruled in favor of Eileen Pressler and her husband Claus in their suit against anti-racism activist David Lethbridge of Salmon Arm and Westcom TV Group Ltd.
Mr. Lethbridge, a college psychology professor and founder and director of the Salmon Arm Coalition Against Racism, and Westcom were sued by the Salmon Arm couple in response to a controversial Oct. 11, 1993, television broadcast. The broadcast was shown in Kelowna on Westcom's station, CHBC.
The show focused on buildings under construction on property the Presslers bought in 1992 on the Trans-Canada Highway near Salmon Arm. The story was re-broadcast Oct. 12 on CBC Vancouver and on CBC News-World Oct. 25.
In his judgment, which was released on May 20, Judge Owen-Flood found the comments made in the broadcast "entirely without foundation." As such they "constitute a defamation of both Claus and Eileen Pressler," he wrote.
He also found Mr. Lethbridge "repeated defamatory rumors about other aspects of the property to the detriment of the Presslers." In the judgment, Eileen Pressler was awarded $1,500 from Mr. Lethbridge and $10,000 from Westcom. Claus Pressler was awarded $10,000 from Mr. Lethbridge and $50,000 from Westcom.
The libel case began No. 10 in B.C. Supreme Curt in Victoria and concluded March 19.
Quoting from precedents, the judge wrote, "Any written words published are defamatory which impute to the plaintiff that he has been guilty of any crime, fraud, dishonesty, immorality, vice or dishonorable conduct..."
In the case of Pressler et al v. Lethbridge et al, he stated, "The defendants, and each of them in the broadcast have given credence to rumors... Further, the impression is given that both plaintiffs were violating municipal laws by building a defended and fortified convention centre." He bound the allegations "defamatory and untrue in fact and substance."
Mr. Lethbridge, he said, "restated rumors in a cavalier manner without regard to whether they were true or false... the defendant Lethbridge was motivated improperly and therefore made the defamatory statements with express malice against both of the plaintiffs."
The judge, commenting on Mr. Lethbridge's state of mind when he was interviewed in the broadcast, said "in his enthusiasm to struggle against bigotry and intolerance, he allowed his mind to fall into such a state of anger and unreason as to lose balance." Mr. Lethbridge said in an interview with the Bulletin that he found the judgment "very disturbing," saying it would have a dual negative impact.
"On the one hand I think it will encourage organized racist and fascist groups across the country to engage in a systematic campaign of civil lawsuits," he said. "On the other hand I think it may well have a chilling effect, not just on the media, but on individuals and organizations in the community who want to speak out against racism in their communities. They may well be afraid that they will end up bankrupt."
Mr. Lethbridge said he was hoping to launch an appeal but was waiting to hear from his lawyer, Irvine Epstein.
"If we are unable to launch an appeal or if we launch an appeal and lose it, I'm looking at [paying] $11,500 in damages as well as an extremely large amount to my lawyer and... court costs," he said.
Mr. Lethbridge said he didn't find the remarks the judge made in his decision regarding the broadcast to be accurate and maintained the community was disturbed by the construction being done on the Pressler property.
"I think it was CHBC's job, almost perhaps their duty to report the existence of such rumors," he said. "I don't think they edited their tape in any particularly malicious way."
Commenting on his own remarks which were part of the broadcast, Mr. Lethbridge said he couldn't see why the judge came to the conclusions that he did.
"As to my remarks, I'm really going to take exception that there was anything irresponsible in them," he said. "In terms of any irresponsible spreading of rumors, I don't see it."
Though the judgment ruled against Mr. Lethbridge and Westcom, Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), Pacific Region, has commended Mr. Lethbridge and his counsel for their work in exposing the Presslers.
"By defending this lawsuit, they exposed Eileen Pressler and her organization as the racists and anti-Semites the judge found them to be," said Zena Simces, newly appointed chair of CJC, Pacific Region, in a press release.
The statement was in reference to remarks in the judgment that "Eileen Pressler, by way of the CPA [Council on Public Affairs], has advertised and promoted several books which can only be classified as virulently anti-Semitic."
Judge Owen-Flood also concluded that Mrs. Pressler and the CPA are "missionaries for anti-Semitism and pro-white racism." He found that her reputation in the community prior to the CHBC "was that a right-wing extremist holding anti-Semitic and racist views."
In disseminating and propagandizing such views, he wrote, "Eileen Pressler and the CPA have committed the tort [wrongful act] of publicly inciting hatred against identifiable groups, namely, persons of Jewish background and others of non-white origin, in such a manner as could lead to a breach of the peace."
In reference to the CPA Digest, a newsletter produced, edited and circulated by Eileen Pressler, the judgment noted that a portion of the publication "expresses viewpoints that can only be described as viciously white supremacist, racist and anti-Semitic.
Such views go beyond what is acceptable in a free and democratic society. They engender hatred of identifiable groups in violation of the Criminal Code. Thus they are beyond the pale of the law. They are both tortious and criminal."
He added that Westcom falsely presented "a picture of deception and dishonesty" in reference to the activities of Claus Pressler. The judge maintained that Mr. Pressler is "a passive Holocaust revisionist" and nothing more.
"I am satisfied that by and large he has never been, nor is he now, a significant player in the activities of the CPA," Judge Owen-Flood wrote.
In the reasons for judgment against Westcom, Judge Owen-Flood said the broadcast made references to the buildings on the Pressler property in such a way that people would be misled.
The Presslers claimed the broadcast was defamatory in portraying the building not as a retirement home but as a compound with extensive security measures, guarded perimeter fences, underground bunkers, its own telecommunication systems and with paramilitary training ground potential.
The judge found that the broadcast "indeed made such averments and that they are entirely without foundation. As such they constitute a defamation of both Clause and Eileen Pressler."
The judge further noted that he found the Presslers were building precisely what was stated in the building permit field with the city.
Herb Silber, a general counsel of CJC, Pacific Region, said that in light of such findings, the CJC is calling on the RCMP to investigate Eileen Pressler and her organization. He added that his organization will be contacting the provincial hate crime team to "follow up."