The right-wing organization Im Tirtzu is not entitled to any money in damages from libelous remarks written by a left-wing activist on Facebook, a Jerusalem District Court judge ruled on Sunday. At the same time, Judge Refael Yacobi decided that Im Tirtzu does not have to pay legal expenses for the eight left-wing activists it sued.
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Im Tirtzu, which describes its goal as the “renewal of Zionism” filed suit against the activists for 2.6 million shekels ($740,000) some three and a half years ago. The suit was brought in reaction to several posts made to a Facebook group that called Im Tirzu a “fascist” movement. In a September court ruling, the judge ruled in favor of the defendants, writing that although Im Tirtzu’s principles do not mirror those of fascism, there were “similarities” between the two, even while he diminished their significance, stating that “there are only similarities with fascism, nothing more.” Following that ruling, Im Tirtzu reduced its demands for damages from 2.6 million shekels to 100,000 shekels. On Sunday, that request was rejected, too, by the court.
Lawyers for the defendants, Yishai Shindor and Michael Sfard, had argued that Im Tirtzu should be forced to pay the defendants’ legal fees as a deterrent to similar libel lawsuits, which they maintain are meant to prevent public discourse. The defendants’ legal fees totaled 77,000 shekels.
On Sunday, the judge rejected that claim, too, ruling that neither side shall compensate the other.
Yacobi’s ruling is similar to other recent court decisions, in which demands for substantial damages for libelous statements were turned down, yet the plaintiffs were not required to pay the defendants’ legal fees. Such lawsuits are generally filed by right-wing groups against left-wing activists or organizations. According to some jurists, such decisions create a “filter effect” on public discourse, because organizations that file libel lawsuits know they have nothing to lose.
“Failure to award legal fees in cases like these encourages organizations to file lawsuits like this, and it contributes to the filter effect,” said Shindor.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of Peace Now, which has been sued twice by West Bank settlers, told Haaretz a few months ago: “They make it so that I need to be hassled, pay for representation, find proof and declarations, and then, even when I win, they don’t lose. The high costs and the results aren’t always worth it.”
Attorney Nadav Haetzni, representing Im Tirtzu, attacked the judge’s ruling, saying it would enable people to conduct campaigns of libel and lies against political rivals, and that Im Tirtzu might appeal.