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Insurance problems

The Gazette was without insurance until near the end of 2012 (Chris Parent photo)
The Gazette was without insurance until near the end of 2012 (Chris Parent photo)

 

As a teaching facility for new journalists, student papers often provide an easy target for lawsuits. But unlike every other major news organization in the country, most student papers don’t have insurance. With more lawyers signing pay-if-you-win contracts that can encourage more lawsuits, campus papers have a new reason to protect themselves.

Sam Brooks, president of the Canadian University Press (CUP), a co-operative newswire for student publications that offers members limited legal counseling, estimates that only 30 per cent of student publications have professional insurance including coverage against libel.

While CUP provides access to a lawyer for consultation, it does not cover legal fees or losses incurred from a professional lawsuit.

“The thing about libel insurance is that every paper is very different,” says Brooks. “Something like insurance, where policies are negotiated on a case by case basis, is not something you could put a blanket thing across the board on.”

This is not necessarily a problem for larger papers.

On March 17, 2009, the Supreme Court of British Colombia ruled that The Peak, Simon Fraser University’s weekly student paper, defamed a staff member of Douglas College’s student union. The plaintiff was awarded $30,000 in general damages. By the end of the appeal process, during which the Court of Appeal upheld the previous decision, the defendants—the editor at the time the defamatory material was published, and Peak Publications Society—ended up paying a total of $80,000.  This figure included the damages plus both parties’ legal costs.

The Peak was and still is a member of CUP. As a larger paper with a circulation of 10,000 and considerable operating fees, the publication paid for legal representation out of pocket. They didn’t have insurance, but, according to Sam Reynolds who was on the board of directors at the time, they did have a portion of their savings that could be allocated to legal fees.

Many smaller Canadian papers could not take a similar monetary hit.

The Community Newspapers Reciprocal Insurance Exchange (CNRIE) was founded in 1986 with an aim to offer rates that are more affordable for smaller outlets, and operates as a not-for-profit. Its coverage includes legal expenses but not fines, penalties, and charges.

The small size of Canada’s 104 student publications—the majority of which have a circulation under 10,000—is both a weakness and a benefit. While a lawsuit could be catastrophic, Todd Frees, the general manager of CNRIE, says many take the risk of going uninsured because there are very few cases that actually go all the way to court. When it comes to suing students, he says, “there’s just not that much money at the other end.”

He says since most student newspapers are not insured, the editors and writers are not covered either. But in a sense he says they are off the hook, since most student editors or writers don’t have money. “It’s not like [anyone] could sue their parents.”

Even the Gazette had to dig deep this year and dish out $2,500 in order to purchase media liability coverage to keep up with Dalhousie Student Union requirements.

Frees says the increasing popularity of contingency fee agreements has made lawsuits more likely. These are contracts agreed on by a lawyer and client in which the client pays only if a lawsuit leads to a recovery. Only in 2004 was the prohibition against the practice lifted in Ontario, and it is still not allowed in certain family law cases.

“In some of our newspapers I’ve seen it happening more,” says Frees. “Those unfortunate things are going to make it more difficult for newspapers because someone could file a lawsuit against you for defamation and if their lawyer is working on contingency, they have nothing to lose.”

Daniel Boltinsky
Daniel Boltinsky
Daniel currently serves as the Gazette's Copy Editor. He was the News Editor for Volume 145.
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