140 Groups Petition Ontario to Enact Public Advocacy Legislation

Over 140 groups, including environmental organizations, unions and freedom of expression advocates have signed a petition urging the Ontario legislature to enact strong legislation to prevent the abuse of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

According to a press release from Greenpeace Canada, anti-SLAPP laws have already been implemented in Quebec, a majority of US states (28) and several other countries "to prevent powerful companies and individuals from lodging meritless lawsuits, often for defamation, which are designed not to protect reputation but to silence critics."

These lawsuits "make it more difficult for civil society to act as watchdog of the powerful," curbing freedom of expression by saddling defendants, "often public interest advocacy groups, with with massive legal fees, draining their resources and distracting them from their core work," says Greenpeace.

In May, Attorney General John Gerretsen submitted Bill 83, Ontario's first government-sponsored anti-SLAPP bill. The bill follows a 2010 report by the Ontario Anti-SLAPP Advisory Panel, which found that SLAPPs "deter people from speaking out against what they see as social wrongs."

Shane Moffatt, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said that "these meritless lawsuits tangle up our courts and waste taxpayers' dollars," and that "it is time to move quickly to protect Ontarians when talking about the issues that matter most to them."

The petition presented to Ontario MPPs has been signed by over 140 groups, including Greenpeace Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Council of Canadians, Marineland Animal Defense, and the Centre for Law and Democracy. The petition expresses concern at the increasing use of SLAPPs and denounces it as a form of "legal harassment" by corporations and governments that is a "growing threat to meaningful citizen participation."

The groups stand behind the right of individuals and organizations "to freely express opinions on issues of public interest, including the future of Canada's forests, without fear of lawsuit."

The petition cites "citizens reporting of environmental violations, filing complaints with government agencies, contacting the media, speaking at public meetings, participating at hearings before administrative tribunals or engaging in public campaigns" as among the activities that provoke SLAPPs.  

"Deep pocketed corporations must be prevented from attacking organizations or individuals with abusive lawsuits to shut down public debate," said Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians. "They undermine the court system and impose a chilling effect on public debate."

Several of the groups supporting the petition have been targeted by SLAPPs. Greenpeace Canada is fighting a $7-million defamation lawsuit brought by logging giant Resolute Forest Products, donations towards fighting which can be made online. Marineland Animal Defense founder Dylan Powell is facing a $1.5 million SLAPP from Marineland. Both cases are for engaging in public interest criticism.

The issue of SLAPPs being abused came to prominence in Ontario when Big Bay Point residents were hit with a $3.2 million lawsuit by developers.

"Our organizations play a crucial role in shining a light on issues the public would otherwise never be aware of," said Powell, of Marineland Animal Defense. "Unfortunately, case law offers little protection and this legislative void will be used as leverage until anti-SLAPP legislation exists."

"The need for effective anti-SLAPP laws has been proven around the world," said Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy and Annie Game, Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. "It is critical that Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions bring themselves into line with these global developments."

Organizations can sign the petition letter online.

Image Credit: CNW Group / Green News

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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