Julian Porter, son of a former chief justice who’s now a leading expert on the law of defamation

By Bill Rogers, Toronto

The Lawyers Weekly, June 25, 1999

When one thinks of Julian Porter, one thinks of defamation. He is among the foremost experts on the subject. The textbook Canadian Libel Practice was co-authored by him, and he also wrote a handbook simply called Libel, which is widely used by Canadian publishers, editors and writers who want to stay out of court.

And although he has done all kinds of litigation — everything from murder to copyright — Porter is best known as the defamation man. Writing about him, therefore, presents special problems. It boils down to this: one doesn’t want to defame the defamation man. That could lead to hideous consequences.

However, when speaking to Porter, one can scarcely imagine that such a jocular and friendly soul would ever sue anybody for anything.

Still, it’s best to test the waters. When asked how he would feel about seeing the statement “Julian Porter is a rotten cook” in print, he responds approvingly. “That’s fine,” he says. “I don’t hold myself out to be otherwise.”

Indeed, this principle is set out in his handbook, which lists various statements and discusses their libel potential. “’He’s a rotten cook’ might be acceptable if it was said of Brian Mulroney,” says the handbook, “but not if it was said of the famous chef James Beard.” Hence Porter, who doesn’t purport to have any particular culinary expertise, is fair game for cooking insults.

Furthermore, the defence of truth would apply to derogatory statements about Porter’s cooking. “It’s dreadfully true,” he says. “I wouldn’t sue.”

Porter got into defamation law because he loves hockey. Back in 1963, four legendary Montreal Canadiens — Jean Beliveau, Toe Blake, Kenny Reardon and Frank Selke — retained his mentor, the renowned litigator Walter Williston, to defend a defamation lawsuit. (The plaintiff was NHL referee Eddie Powers. He took umbrage when Blake, after losing to the Leafs, grumbled to the press that Powers had refereed the game “as if he had a bet on it.” The suit was ultimately settled.)

When the four hockey stars walked down the hallway to Williston’s office, they paraded past the open door of Porter’s absurdly small student cubicle. He got up and followed them. “I was a hockey nut,” he recalls. “I didn’t know libel from my left foot. But I walked in with the crowd. I knew hockey.”

He soon found himself holed up in Osgoode Hall, where Williston sent him to learn the law of libel. “For three weeks I sat in the Great Library,” Porter explains. “In three weeks you can learn an awful lot of law. It gave me a foothold.”

He said he enjoys doing defamation cases. “It’s fun. The people you deal with, the writers and the editors, they’re all bright. You’re always arguing about the nuance of a word. It’s terrific.”

Because he is married to the Canadian publisher Anna Porter, writers are often in the living room for non-legal reasons as well.

Porter says he was fortunate to have Williston as a mentor. Now he finds himself in that same role, giving guidance to young lawyers. He shares this piece of advice: “If you’re acting for a plaintiff, you should always get a jury.” This can create “pure havoc,” he says.

“More people should try juries in commercial cases,” he says. “It’s awful. Usually your opponent has never been in front of a jury. Everybody has a fit.”

Not surprisingly, Porter has the reputation of being very effective in jury trials, and is known for using courtroom humour to good effect.

Another piece of advice: “Try not to get too pigeonholed until you’re sure the pigeonhole somebody else is trying to put you in is a good one. There’s a great temptation for everyone to pigeonhole early,” he warns. “I would wriggle as long as I could to avoid that.”

Porter has tried to balance his law career with a variety of other pursuits, such as being Chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission (1977-85). “It was different from law,” he recalls. “You’d go up on the subway, and you’d suddenly be the chairman. They you go back to your office and you’d just be a lawyer with everybody giving you crap.”

He now has a lifetime TTC pass which he uses every day to get to work. “I still know a great number of people in the system. They all wave at me.”

Another diversionary activity he will pursue is that of Law Society bencher, a position he has just been elected to. “I can see already I’m going to have fun,” he says.

Porter became a lawyer because he “didn’t want to sell insurance.” He also came by it honestly — his dad was Chief Justice of Ontario. “I idolized my father because he taught me about Shakespeare and opera,” he says fondly.

After doing a B.A. in history at the University of Toronto, Porter opted for Osgoode Hall Law School as a change of pace. He played varsity football (offensive centre and defensive tackle) and he thought “seven years of football on one campus was a bit wacky.”

He was called to the Bar in 1964, spent eight years at Fasken’s under the likes of Williston and John Sopinka, then started his own small firm which ran for some 25 years. In 1997 he joined the Toronto office of Gowlings. “The people at Gowlings are very nice,” he says. “And that’s what I wanted — people that were nice.”

He’s happy he chose law as a profession, although he admits it has been much harder than he thought it would be.

“I thought that at the age of 62, which I am now, it would be a variation of easy street,” he says. “I thought I’d be giving whispered advice in oak-paneled boardrooms. Well, that’s just bullshit. It’s a [bleep]ing chase. People are angry at you, and bitching at this, or bitching at that. There ain’t much deference. But it’s okay.”