June 20, 2016 - 6:30 PM
HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia judge has ordered Facebook to release the identities of users behind two profiles to municipal officials seeking to sue them for defamation.
The two account holders made disparaging comments on a Facebook group called "Taxpayers of Richmond County, NS" about Richmond Councillor Steve Sampson and county administrator Warren Olsen.
Sampson and Olsen believe those names — Jake Sampson and Jim Davis — are pseudonyms, "and want to find out who is actually behind the Facebook postings so they can be sued," according to a decision released Monday by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
Facebook itself took no position on the issue, while neither account holder responded to attempts to contact them, Justice Michael Wood said.
"The offending comments relate to the handling of public funds" by Steve Sampson and Olsen, the judge said, quoting references to "fraudulent behaviour" and "wrong doings."
The Facebook group came out of an expenses scandal that grew from a fight over the size of Richmond county's council.
As warden until 2014, Sampson led a successful fight to reduce county council to five seats from 10, and he has fought other anonymous attempts to pressure him.
In April, he called a Halifax news conference to allege someone tried to blackmail him by revealing a call he made from a Seattle hotel room to a male escort service while he was on county business in 2014.
In his ruling on the Facebook postings, Wood grappled with the competing principles at play. He said people who damage others' reputations should not be shielded by Internet secrecy, but acknowledged anonymity sometimes allows those who expose "conduct which might otherwise not come to light" to be protected, especially in small communities.
"Anonymous posters should not have a licence to defame without consequences however, those who comment on matters of public interest should not have their anonymity stripped away simply because they are critical of public figures who take offence," he wrote. "It is a question of finding a reasonable balance of these competing values in light of the nature of the comments and the strength of the potential claim," he wrote.
Wood ruled that the number and nature of postings by the two accounts in question overrode any expectation of remaining anonymous.
He did not order disclosure of the identity behind a third Facebook account, held by a "Paul Burke," saying allegations made on that account did not directly suggest improper conduct as did the other two.
Steve Sampson also works as a regional outreach officer for the governing provincial Liberals.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016