A blogger who boasts that his critiques of Hasidic leaders in Outremont have revealed “revolting” practices and flushed out “bugs” from darkened corners has successfully defended a libel suit brought against him by three prominent community leaders.
A Quebec Superior Court judge rejected the plaintiffs’ claim for $375,000 in damages, concluding that Pierre Lacerte’s commentary was acerbic but it was based on facts.
The Dec. 4 decision by Judge Claude Dallaire is the latest chapter in a six-year-old legal feud that has highlighted the sometimes tense relationship between Outremont’s growing Hasidic community and its non-Jewish neighbours.
Mr. Lacerte, who lives across the street from an ultra-orthodox synagogue, created his blog in 2007 and uses it to denounce what he considers to be the law-breaking and undue political influence of senior Hasidim.
The blog reports frequently on such transgressions as double-parked cars outside the synagogue, renovations conducted without proper permits and chartered buses picking up passengers on residential streets. Mr. Lacerte alleges that Outremont’s borough council is in cahoots with the Hasidim and turns a blind eye to the law breaking.
For father-and-son real-estate developers Michael and Martin Rosenberg and Hasidic spokesman Alex Werzberger, the attacks became too much. Michael Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Rosdev Group, testified last January that Mr. Lacerte’s writings have damaged his reputation. And he alleged in an interview that the blog is anti-Semitic, accusing Mr. Lacerte of “stirring up a lot of problems” in Outremont.
Mr. Lacerte told the court that “words are his only weapon,” and the judgment lists examples of the artillery he levelled at Michael Rosenberg over the issue of illegal parking. He said the developer “likes to break the law,” calling him a “fanatic,” an “ultra-religious extremist,” “a Hasidic nabob” and the “righter of wrongs of the ghetto.”
Judge Dallaire concluded that the language was acceptable because Mr. Lacerte documented the transgressions he alleged. She dismissed Mr. Rosenberg’s argument that he respected the law because he always paid his parking tickets.
Mr. Lacerte makes frequent use of altered photos to mock the Hasidic leaders. In one, illustrating a story about the Jewish holiday of Purim, Mr. Werzberger is depicted as slurring his words as he explains that buses used by the community on the holiday are the equivalent of drive-home programs for drunk drivers. Judge Dallaire found that it was fair comment since it is not clear whether the buses are authorized in the borough.
The plaintiffs had complained about a column in which Mr. Lacerte focused on their distinctive dress and referred to a group of Hasidim as a “tsunami of men in black.” Judge Dallaire ruled that commenting on the community’s distinctive dress is not indicative of hatred or ridicule.
“The Hasidim have an appearance that is different from the other citizens of Outremont, since their religion makes them display certain distinctive symbols, such as the long black coat,” she wrote. “We are of the opinion that they cannot display and request this difference then complain that certain people refer to these distinctive symbols when talking about them.”
She concluded that the three plaintiffs are all public figures by virtue of their roles as spokesmen and their involvement on a borough inter-cultural committee.
Mr. Lacerte’s language “can sting,” she wrote, his remarks can be considered “aggressive” and they sometimes come close to the line of what is acceptable. “But we are of the opinion that this line was not crossed in the specific context of this file.”
Mr. Lacerte counter-sued, arguing that the libel suit was a baseless attempt to muzzle him. In addition to monetary damages, the three plaintiffs had asked that the blog be taken down. But Judge Dallaire ruled that the libel suit, which followed Mr. Rosenberg’s unsuccessful request for an order under the Criminal Code requiring Mr. Lacerte to leave him alone, was not abusive or in bad faith. She denied Mr. Lacerte’s counter-suit, which had sought $765,000 in damages.
Mr. Werzberger said Monday he needs to consult his lawyer before commenting on the ruling. Mr. Lacerte made his reaction known in a triumphant blog post. “The honourable judge of the Superior Court bought none of the arguments of my three adversaries,” he wrote. “My remarks were neither hateful nor degrading nor humiliating nor offensive.” The post was accompanied by a photomontage depicting the three plaintiffs crucified.