Steve Maich: Twilight of the online haters

Brian Burke has an extensive history in rugby.

We’ve grown accustomed to lies and casual cruelty online, and Brian Burke is making a stand to change that culture.

Last week, Brian Burke filed a lawsuit against a handful of anonymous cowards who invented a bizarre fiction about his personal life and posted it on Web comment boards.

I won’t repeat the specifics of the lies they spread, for reasons that are probably obvious, but the thrust of the story was that Burke was fired as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs because of his own moral failings, not because of the team’s performance or due to philosophical differences with ownership. In the interest of full disclosure, I can tell you that some of the lies involved a colleague of mine here at Sportsnet.

Burke’s suit is significant in several ways, regardless of its outcome.

First, it challenges the media companies who protect the anonymity of people who are using their message boards to commit libel. The right to free speech is sacrosanct, but it doesn’t impart the right to spread lies about individuals, much less to profit from hosting that kind of libel.

Second, the suit is a symbolic stand against the idea that anything goes on the Web, and that basic standards of law, not to mention decency, can be flouted without consequence. We have grown so accustomed to the constant torrent of snark and vitriol that issues forth on the Web each day that they are becoming normalized. Reasonable people have become resigned to casual viciousness. Haters gonna hate, we shrug. But the only way it changes is to stop shrugging and to start demanding action.

In this month’s Esquire, Stephen Marche argues persuasively that we are at the beginning of a backlash against this culture of unchecked cruelty. He believes that high-profile cases of bullying on the Web are triggering a popular movement toward more civility online. I hope he’s right. But I think lawsuits like Burke’s might be an important step in that process.

For the record, Burke is not a friend of mine. I’ve met him only once, and he made it very clear that he objected to an appraisal of his work and his team that had been published in this magazine. Nonetheless, I hope he succeeds. I hope he unmasks the people who smeared him and others while hiding in the smug safety of an anonymous message board. And I hope they’re made to pay for the damage they did.

More than that, though, I hope reasonable people will eventually decide it’s unacceptable to do that kind of thing in the first place.

Steve Maich is the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Sportsnet Magazine.

Comments are turned off for this story.