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Chassidim sue blogger for defamation, harassment

Tags: Canada
Pierre Lacerte [Facebook photo]

MONTREAL — A decade-long feud in Outremont between a wealthy chassidic leader and a non-Jewish blogger who chronicles alleged municipal infractions by the chassidic community went to court.

Michael Rosenberg, head of the prominent commercial real estate company Rosdev, along with his son Martin Rosenberg and businessman Alex Werzberger, who heads a coalition of chassidic communities, are suing Pierre Lacerte for $375,000 for defamation, harassment and breach of privacy. The case was heard in Quebec Superior Court over four days, ending Jan. 17.

That scheduled time proved insufficient, and the hearing will resume Jan. 30.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer is Julius Grey, a well-known civil rights advocate.

The elder Rosenberg, 58, openly charges that Lacerte is motivated by antisemitism, which Lacerte denies, saying he just wants the law applied equally to everyone and is exercising his freedom of speech.

Lacerte lives on Hutchison Street, facing Congregation Gate David, a small Bobover shul that has been there for more than 50 years. The Rosenbergs are leaders of the congregation.

Lacerte, 58, has run the blog “Accommodements Outremont” since 2007, using it to document and comment on perceived violations of the borough’s parking, nuisance, building and other regulations.

His chassidic neighbours are a frequent topic, although the question of how often he writes about them came into dispute during testimony.

Since 2003, Lacerte has been photographing alleged violations and presenting these images as evidence on his blog. That’s the year the congregation began doing construction work that Lacerte alleges went ahead without a permit.

Rosenberg and his son said they are fed up with, and unnerved by, Lacerte taking photographs as they come and go from the synagogue. The elder Rosenberg claims the blog is hurting his business, because it portrays him as someone who doesn’t respect the law and lives in a ghetto. He even testified that it could adversely affect his children’s marriage prospects.

Lacerte, a former journalist, claims he is within his rights to take photographs of people in the public sphere and disseminate them on the Internet. He charges that the lawsuit’s aim is to silence him. His lawyer, Rosalia Giarratano, told Judge Claude Dallaire that only seven per cent of some 300 articles published on the blog mention Rosenberg.

Lacerte is counter-suing Michael Rosenberg for $725,000, on the grounds that his reputation has been damaged by the businessman, who he contends has far more resources available to him. He says the accusation of antisemitism has negatively affected his employment opportunities in the communications field.

On his blog last week, Lacerte posted an illustration depicting Rosenberg as Godzilla and himself as a Lilliputian squaring off in a boxing ring.

Lacerte, who describes himself as secular, maintains he has nothing against Jews. His real beef, he says, is with officials of the Outremont borough, whom he charges are lax in enforcing the regulations equally among citizens and are especially reluctant when it comes to the Chassidim, a rapidly growing segment of the population.

He has also brought numerous complaints to municipal authorities over the years, and a number about Rosenberg in particular, and he made a lengthy presentation at the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation in 2007 about the Chassidim’s purported lack of respect for the rules and how life in a residential zone is being disrupted by the communities’ activities.

In 2007, Rosenberg brought a $100,000 suit against Lacerte, who launched the blog soon after to “defend himself.”

Lacerte is reportedly receiving financial support for his legal battles from a group called Citoyens pour l’équité réglementaire, formed in 2008.

In 2008, Rosenberg made a complaint to the police of harassment by Lacerte. He said he feared for his and his family’s safety.

In 2011, Quebec Court Judge Manon Ouimet refused to issue the restraining order Rosenberg sought to prevent Lacerte from photographing activity outside the synagogue.

She characterized Lacerte as “an excessive, meticulous and impassioned person,” but as posing no danger. She also affirmed that the content on his blog is within free speech and does not threaten, intimidate or harass Rosenberg.

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