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B.C. introduces legislation to protect free speech from intimidation lawsuits

Current laws allow suits that “only serve those with significantly deeper pockets”

Lawsuits designed to financially cripple small organizations or intimidate citizens into silence will no longer be allowed under the provincial government’s new anti-SLAPP legislation, welcomed as a step forward for free speech in B.C.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are usually launched by powerful corporations or organizations to threaten and silence critics and discourage others from speaking out. Under the new legislation, which will be debated next fall, the courts can be asked to dismiss lawsuits that are designed to prevent the defendant from speaking freely on a matter of public interest.

Currently, the onus is on the person being sued to show that the organization suing them intends to silence legitimate criticism.

Attorney General David Eby, who presented the Protection of Public Participation Act in the Legislature Tuesday, said British Columbians deserve the freedom to peacefully engage in public debate without fear of unreasonable and financially ruinous legal action.

“Lawsuits that serve to silence and financially exhaust those exercising their right of expression exploit our legal system and only serve those with significantly deeper pockets,” Eby said.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, one of the organizations that has been appealing to the NDP government for legislation, said SLAPPs have become common in B.C.

“Many British Columbians and organizations in this province have been harassed, intimidated and litigated into silence by stronger parties with spurious — and in some cases outrageous — legal threats,” Paterson said.

The legislation, which is based on similar rules in Ontario, will allow SLAPP suits to be identified quickly, avoiding long and expensive trials, he said.

Even cases which are ultimately thrown out of court, or which never get to court, can be financially ruinous, pointed out Joe Foy, national campaigner for the Wilderness Committee. That organization was dragged through the courts by Taseko Mines Ltd. for five years.

The company launched the defamation case after the Wilderness Committee suggested on its website that opponents of Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity Mine, near Williams Lake, should comment on the federal government’s environmental review process.

“Those with financial means should not be able to use their means to limit the voices of others. You cannot put a price on free speech.”

The case was finally tossed out of court, with the B.C. Court of Appeal and the B.C. Supreme Court agreeing that the lawsuit was launched to silence critics on a matter of public importance, but there were still financial ramifications, Foy said.

The cost of insurance for directors and officers of the group soared from $2,000 to $7,500 a year — even though the Wilderness Committee was completely innocent — and staff time, spent collecting information and evidence, racked up a major bill, Foy said.

“All we were doing was encouraging our supporters to comment and, suddenly, you are stuck in a room with an 800 pound gorilla called Taseko who wants your blood,” said Foy, adding that, initially, neither level of government would lift a finger to help.

“That’s why we really appreciate what the provincial government is doing,” he said.

The situation is even more intimidating for individuals who speak out against something such as a neighbourhood development and are immediately slapped with papers for saying what they think, Foy said.

That was the case in Shawnigan Lake, when residents who spoke out against a contaminated landfill site, operated by South Island Resource Management Ltd., received legal letters.

Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, then a Cowichan Valley Regional District director, led the opposition to the contaminated soil site and, on Tuesday, she welcomed the government’s anti-SLAPP legislation.

“A vibrant public sphere is one of the fundamental components of a healthy democracy and no one should be afraid to voice their opinion on the issues that matter to them,” Furstenau said in an emailed response to a question from The Narwhal.

“Those with financial means should not be able to use their means to limit the voices of others. You cannot put a price on free speech.”

West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer Erica Stahl said the legislation will go a long way towards strengthening democracy in B.C.

“If a corporation drags you to court for speaking out, you may spend years fighting the case — distracting you from the real public issues that need to be discussed and resulting in immense financial and emotional costs,” Stahl said.

B.C. previously had a brief experience with anti-SLAPP legislation.

In 2001 the former NDP government introduced Canada’s first such legislation, but it was repealed five months later by the newly elected BC Liberal government, which argued it would lead to a protest culture.

 

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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