Defamation and metaphor

The BC Supreme Court is about to hear a case where an activist is being charged with  defamation by a big salmon-farming company for material he put out as part of an anti-salmon farming campaign.  Apart from all the issues of legal substance and whether this is a serious case or simply an attempt to use intimidation against activists to create a chilling effect, there’s one additional thing that I find interesting: the activist clearly used metaphors and hyperbole, both common rhetorical devices, to get his point across.

If the article is accurate and hasn’t left anything out and I understand it correctly, the basis of the defamation charge is not that he’s saying that fish farming kills salmon, but that fish farming is being compared with smoking and therefore there is an implication of harm being done to humans. What the “cigarette package” actually says is, “Norwegian owned” (which the company is) and “Salmon Farming Kills Wild Baby Salmon,” clearly a parody of the message on real cigarette packs (“cigarettes hurt babies” and “tobacco smoke hurts babies”). Is the association strong enough to be read as saying that humans are at risk? Or is it clear to those who see this that this is a metaphor for killing salmon, rather than killing humans?

I guess my real question is… at what point does a metaphor become defamation?

There are some fascinating implications in the possible answer. Much current advertising and marketing makes intense use of metaphor and hyperbole… including the advertising put out by the BC Salmon Farmers Association itself. Could other court cases be initiated? For example, what about all those Apple TV ads ads that had the cool guy as a Mac and the nerd as a PC? Is that metaphor legally defamatory?

I’ll be watching this one with interest.


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