On July 25th, the Ontario Superior Court of justice dismissed an action under a new provision of the Ontario Courts of Justice Act intended to dissuade persons from bringing “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – so called “SLAPP” suits.
The plaintiff is a company that operates a gravel pit. It sued a Stouffville teacher who made two postings to Facebook about a municipal approval that allowed an expansion of the company’s operation. The defendant made the posts without reading the engineering report the plaintiff had filed with the municipality or taking any other significant steps to inform herself of the issue. She said the defendant would profit significantly from the approval, the municipality would not, and the defendant “would potentially poison our children.” When the plaintiff demanded an apology, the defendant apologized. The plaintiff sued anyway.
The plaintiff agreed that the defendant’s expression related to a matter of public interest – leaving the plaintiff to establish that its proceeding had “substantial merit,” that the defendant had “no valid defence” and that it had suffered (or was likely to suffer) “sufficiently serious harm” in order to survive dismissal under the CJA’s anti-SLAPP provision. The Court held that none of these criteria were met, dismissed the action and awarded $7,500 in damages to the plaintiff (in part reflecting how the plaintiff conducted its proceeding and in part reflecting the defendant’s failure to adduce medical evidence in support of her damages claim).
The judgement means that the burden on a party seeking civil redress for statements made about a matter of public interest is high. In this case, for example, it did not matter that the plaintiff took few steps to inform herself of the issue or used the “unfortunate” word “poison”; informed or not, the Court said the plaintiff had a right to enter the public forum and use emphatic language in doing so without the risk of being sued. Justice Lederer explained:
I am inclined to the view that the legislature did more than just “tilt the balance somewhat”. Rather the legislature created a steep hill for the plaintiff to climb before an action like this one is to be permitted to proceed. The legislation directs that we place substantial value on the freedom of expression over defamation in the public sphere. To put it simply, those who act in the public realm need to realize that not everybody will accept what they wish to do or agree with what they say and may make statements that go beyond what may seem, to the recipient, to be appropriate.