BY JULEE BOAN
First published in The Chronicle Journal Monday March 3, 2014
In 2010, two municipal councillors from Thornhill, Ont., advocating for the protection of prime farmland in their community were sued by a developer who accused them of trespassing on his land. The developer seemingly forgot that he had leased the land back to a local farmer who had given the councillors permission to hold a news conference on the side of the road at the farm.
The lawsuit was, of course, dismissed as nonsense by the courts. But it took two years and substantial lawyers’ fees to resolve. In response, one of the councillors said, “To us, this looks like an attempt at intimidation and bullying … In my opinion, this is a SLAPP suit.”
A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) is a lawsuit initiated against one or more individuals who speak out on an issue of public interest.
This year, Bill 83, the Protection of Public Participation Act, was drafted at the urging of many concerned citizens who have seen and felt the corrosive effects of deep-pocketed interests suing citizens for speaking their minds.
The purpose of anti-SLAPP legislation is to encourage civic engagement on matters of public interest, to discourage the use of litigation to unduly limit expression and to reduce the risk that participation by the public in debates will be hampered by fear of legal action.
The bill would only deter meritless lawsuits that are clearly designed to tie opponents up in costly legal knots with little chance of ultimate success.
If Bill 83 is passed, the anti-SLAPP process would be fair and impartial.
If someone feels they have been served a SLAPP, they would submit a motion to dismiss to the court to be addressed within 60 days. This would expedite the process, litigation costs will not keep piling up. The judge would not dismiss a lawsuit if there are grounds to believe that the proceedings have merit.
Many jurisdictions, including Quebec, California, Minnesota, Arizona and Maine — in fact the majority of US states — have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation.
Where such legislation is in place, courts are very cautious in dismissing cases. Many more cases proceed than do not.
Last week, 10 mayors in Northern Ontario (not including our mayor, Keith Hobbs) issued a letter with an over-the-top denunciation of Bill 83.
It appears as though these mayors have not read the report from the anti-SLAPP advisory panel that told the government there was a need for anti-SLAPP legislation because “threats of lawsuits for speaking out on matters of public interest, combined with a number of actual lawsuits, deter significant numbers of people from participating in discussion on such matters.”
The need for anti-SLAPP legislation in Ontario is supported by the Council of Canadians, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Centre for Law and Democracy.
What mayor wants to come out on the wrong side of that?